Book review: Cataract City, By Craig Davidson


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The Independent Culture

Craig Davidson’s work, so far, has dealt with the brutal nature of old-school masculinity, and how that butts up against the idea of men in the modern world. His excellent story collection, Rust and Bone, was adapted into the award-winning French film of the same name, and his debut novel, The Fighter, delved deeply into the world of illegal bare-knuckle boxing.

Cataract City deals with many of the same themes as Davidson’s previous work, but does so within a much more expansive and ambitious framework. The book’s title is a reference to the nickname for Niagara Falls city, a depressed and downbeat neighbour to bright and shiny Toronto over the water.

Against this blue-collar backdrop we get the lifelong friendship of Owen and Duncan, two boys who dream of escaping the constrictions of small-town life and making names for themselves.

But fate, as it so often does, has other plans. The book opens with Owen and Duncan as grown men, one working as a local cop while the other has just been released from a long stretch in prison. The paths of their lives continually intertwine, and there is an inevitable gravitational pull between them, as well as the seemingly inescapable pull of the city they call home, for better or worse.

Cataract City has received huge plaudits in Davidson’s home country of Canada and was shortlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize, and it’s easy to see why. I can’t think of another prose stylist out there as visceral and  kinetic as Davidson – there is plenty of brutality within these pages but it’s described in such wonderfully textured and precise language as to render it utterly compelling.

There are a couple of dramatic setpieces that drive the narrative forward and cleverly mirror each other. The first is a long early passage where the boys get lost in the woods after being abducted by a local celebrity, the second is a similar passage where Owen and Duncan as men have to survive in the same woods while tracking a criminal. Both sections are completely nerve shredding and more than a little harrowing, but Davidson is never gratuitous in his description, always using language to perfectly ramp up the tension and conflict in every situation.

Elsewhere the author writes beautifully and expertly about sport. There are passages on greyhound racing and basketball that will have you on the edge of your seat while reading, and at the nastier end of things there is, yes, more bare-knuckle fighting, a demolition derby and even a powerful evocation of the brutality of illegal dog fighting.

But for all the violence on display, this is a book with remarkable heart. The bonds  between Owen and Duncan are explored with sensitivity and depth, and their symbiotic  relationship is portrayed with an intelligence and complexity I’ve seldom encountered before.

Life is damned hard in Cataract City, and no one escapes without plenty of scars, but the possibility of hope and deep friendship make the ride worthwhile.