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Summer reading

'They were married when the cold and bitter winter came and laid that country barren but for houselights burning in the black prairie night over wasted fields and empty roads.' Our summer reading series continues with an excerpt from Kevin Hardcastle's debut novel, In the Cage

The first time Daniel fought in the cage was on his twenty-seventh birthday. He had boxed as an amateur and went twenty-two and two with twenty knockouts. The losses were decisions, and he had only ever been hurt once in those fights but he never told anybody about it. He didn't like the boxing game and before he could be pushed to turn pro his trainer was sent to Fernbrook penitentiary for work he did with the local motorcycle club. He didn't come back. Daniel didn't go to the gym anymore and then he saw a Muay Thai fight on TV and he decided he was done with boxing. Within a year he had fought twelve kickboxing matches under North-American rules and won them all by knockout. He fought in Quebec and Alberta and on First Nations land and some of those fights weren't on his record and some were under Thai rules and the pathetic canvas matting of those rings were stained and stained again with men's blood.

In southern Alberta he found a gym that wasn't much more than a storage locker with floor mats, and there he learned Jiu Jitsu from two white men who had learned a poor man's version from a half-Brazilian day labourer. When he went back to Ontario, Daniel found a true Brazilian gym with men of suspect lineage to players in Rio de Janeiro and Curitiba and they beat him bloody about the ears and twisted him to pulp and he dreamt about it every night, lying battered and aching in his one-room shithole apartment in the east end of the city. He didn't talk to his father anymore and he didn't go up north to the place he was born and grew up. His old man wanted him to come home and weld but the boy wanted no part of that life. He'd had offers to work in places remote and frozen without fight gyms but they were long withdrawn and Daniel cleaned the halls and toilets of his would-be alma mater and sometimes he shovelled snow out of entryways and laid salt on the pockmarked stone of the steps out front.

He turned twenty-seven in a cage near Fort McMurray. The man he fought had a huge, mutant head and cauliflowered ears and his nose buckled in at the bridge. At two-hundred and four pounds Daniel gave up a lot of weight to the other man but he had no true manager and the fight had been re-classed as a catchweight bout and he would not see his money if he walked away. The only punch the big man threw was slipped and then that other man ate a one-two and fell and he was swarmed by Daniel and had his brow cleaved by elbow-strikes and his head bounced off the mat while he tried to get his forearms up.

Daniel fought in a legion hall in Lethbridge and there he left an American ex-wrestler turtled up against the cage with his rib broken from a knee and his left eye swollen shut. He fought in Red Deer and in Grande Prairie and the men he fought were younger and both lasted no more than a minute and when he got to his next fight at a cut-rate casino in Lloydminster the other fighter was not there. The promoter didn't want to pay Daniel but he did pay him and then Daniel sat in a motel room on his own and drank all of the unearned money away. He fought on a reserve outside of Vancouver and there he had his nose broken by an illegal headbutt that the referee didn't see and he gobbed blood and filth out of his mouth between rounds and his ear hurt where it had been torn under the lobe by the ridge of the other man's glove. Not a minute into the second round that man was prone and senseless from a left head kick and Daniel's shin stung as he walked the cage-perimeter with his hands in the air, his corner man trying to plug his nostrils with gauze. He fought in Olympia and Portland and outdoors on a ranch in Montana, cowboys and rednecks sitting in wooden bleachers drinking beer as if they were watching high school football. He and another man went through the cage door in Lincoln, Nebraska and didn't know what to do when they got up on the cold concrete with the sparse crowd pulling away. In the cage again he dropped the man with a wild overhand right and the man had a lot of trouble coming around and Daniel was terrified. He went to a small town outside of Kansas City, Missouri that he couldn't remember and he had to sneak out of the back door of the community hall and he never fought that far south again. There were fights in Quebec now and he fought there often and won twice in televised fights. In Ontario there were no sanctioned fights but he fought on the Akwesasne and Rama reserves and then he went west.

At a backwater clinic outside of Medicine Hat a nurse's assistant with long red hair stitched his eyebrow and then put seventeen stitches through a cut on his shin. She asked him what he was doing with his life and he asked her the same. She was twenty-one years old and her family was American but she had been born on the Canadian side of the forty-ninth parallel under circumstances she didn't know or wouldn't tell. She had spent a few years in British Columbia with her older sister until that sister went home to tend to their sick father. She told Daniel that she had come to Alberta for the work, like everybody else, like him. He'd shied from the first stitch and she wouldn't let him get away with it. A man who got punched in the face for a pittance but didn't like needles. He had no fights in Medicine Hat again but he pulled his stitches and went back and then he started inventing new injuries and fantastical post-operative complaints. Before the first snowfall of that year he had fought twice more and they were married when the cold and bitter winter came and laid that country barren but for houselights burning in the black prairie night over wasted fields and empty roads.

They had a red-haired daughter in that bleak season. Over eight pounds and she kicked and wailed. If he thought he knew what love was, he was wrong. To be loved just for being alive. To be loved to the point of desperation for the little space that you took up. That was how he loved the girl and sometimes he could barely look at her because he didn't know what to do with it.

Excerpted from In the Cage by Kevin Hardcastle, copyright 2017. Published by Biblioasis.

Q&A with Kevin Hardcastle

There's a story in your first book, Debris, called Montana Border, which features a fighter named Daniel. Was that the genesis of In the Cage?

The novel had actually been written some years before my story collection. While working on Debris, my editor John Metcalf asked if he could read the novel, and suggested that I mine it for some short fiction while we revised. Montana Border came out of that and became one of my most popular and best received stories.

This excerpt comes from the very beginning of the novel; can you provide a hint at what comes next?

It represents the tone pretty well. But this segment, as with a few bridge-parts, are actually telling the past and recount events that made Daniel who he is. The main narrative is Daniel as an older man, his career derailed by injury, struggling to work as a welder, and as muscle for a rural crime figure. Right at the moment when violence in that world is primed to explode.

Boxing has long been catnip to a certain type of writer; perhaps mixed-martial arts are now. Why does fighting and writing go hand-in-hand?

Combat sports contain such a wealth of human drama that they can provoke powerful stories when they're written well. MMA fighters are so roundly misunderstood, so it is a lucky thing for me that so few writers have tackled this material effectively. I also wanted to focus on the work that takes place in the gym and the sacrifices that fighters make in their ordinary lives. As far as the draw of MMA literature, it has been written far less than boxing, but has a far wider range of stories to tell and the diversity of the sport itself is more interesting. The many, many ways you can win or lose.