>>Finally got around to it: November 2013
We drove down Parkside and pulled up beside a 5.0 Mustang. A farmer-tanned arm hung casually out the open window. There was a tattoo of a wolf howling at the moon on that arm, except the skin drooped so that the moon looked more like a teardrop—which would be poetic, I guess, if it had been on purpose.
Mahoney pulled up closer. I caught a flash of the driver: in his mid-thirties, his face deeply seamed and his skin a queer off-yellow like a watery cat’s eye. He looked sick but probably wasn’t. It’s just how men grew up around here. My dad said Cataract City was a pressure chamber: living was hard, so boys were forced to become men much faster. That pressure ingrained itself in bodies and faces. You’d see twenty-year-old men whose hands were stained permanently black with the granular grease from lubing the rollers at the Bisk. Men just past thirty walking with a stoop. Forty-year-olds with forehead wrinkles deep as the bark on a redwood. You didn’t age gracefully around here. You just got old.
Capital-M Masculinity is beaten halfway to death in Craig Davidson’s fourth book, Cataract City. This surprisingly intimate novel follows the lives of two childhood friends, Duncan Diggs and Owen Stuckey. Beginning with Duncan’s release from prison following an eight-year stint for murder, the novel travels back and forth between the present day and the highlights—and lowlights—of their lives together, charting a friendship forged as much through love as it was through fear: fear of being alone, and more than that, of accepting the city’s limits as one’s own.
After the short prologue in which Owen picks Duncan up upon his release from the Kingston Pen, the narrative jumps back in time to detail the origins of their friendship. As ten-year-olds in Niagara Falls—dubbed “Cataract City” for the Latin word for “waterfall,” it was a place where you got stuck, where you started a bank account as a child and it saw you through to the day you died—Owen and Duncan naturally gravitated towards one another: both were born into blue collar families (though Duncan’s was just that little bit lower—with no-name-brand corn flakes and powdered milk on the table), both fathers were working their lives away in a factory, and both idolized Cataract City’s very own not-ready-for-prime-time wrestling sensation, Bruiser Mahoney—AKA Dade Rathburn.
One fateful, childhood-defining night, Owen and Duncan find themselves pseudo-kidnapped by Bruiser Mahoney, who drives them out into the woods to impart unto his biggest fans in the whole wide world the things that every man worth his salt needed to learn. Things like living off the wilderness, the taste of charred raccoon, and how to spot a fraud through a pair of rose-coloured glasses. When in the middle of the night Bruiser passes away, the two boys are put in a life-threatening situation: they needed to somehow find their way back to civilization, and to their families, before being done in by nature or by starvation—whichever came first. What follows is a harrowing, tragic adventure that’s practically a complete novel in and of itself, yet is only Cataract City‘s first part; as Owen and Duncan clumsily navigate the woods, for several days and sometimes travelling in circles, they are both stripped down to their innermost selves before being built up again, having naturally been changed by the experience.
Right away Cataract City overflows with colour, detail, and strong sometimes unsettling imagery—like night falling in the woods as “a guillotine blade: quick and sharp, cutting you off from everything.” As great as the prose is, it’s in the effortless kid-to-kid dialogue in which Davidson’s writing truly excels. The longer Owen and Duncan remain lost in the woods, the more their conversations turn inward and introspective, moving from survival techniques and quick back-and-forths about Popeye’s dietary needs to inventive campfire-style stories about dogs being sent into space. The tone of their interaction is damn near perfect and does a fine job setting up a verbal shorthand that will carry them through their adult lives and the remainder of the novel.
Beyond the language and the imagery, however, it’s through Bruiser Mahoney that Davidson sets the template for the book: the thematic deconstruction and subsequent dismissal of what makes a man “a man” in the traditional sense. Because Bruiser’s not just Duncan and Owen’s idol; he’s also a figurehead for a type of rugged masculinity popularized everywhere from old John Wayne films to the sort of culture that surrounded the world of professional wrestling that really kicked into high gear in the 1980s with the rise of the WWF. And to the flip side of that coin, Bruiser is a showman living the lie to its fullest extent—a pathetic creature reliving his greatest stories over and over again, further embellishing the details with each retelling.
This theme—payment for masculinity’s sins—is returned to throughout the novel’s remaining parts as Owen and Duncan drift in and out of each others’ lives, invariably tethered to one another seemingly regardless of paths taken. In some cases the payment takes on expected forms—like Clyde and Adam, two local fuck-ups, taking out their jealousy and aggression on Owen by running him down with a truck, putting an unceremonious cap on what was a potential pro basketball career—while others are decidedly more “underground” such as: off-the-books dog racing, dog fighting, bare-knuckle boxing, and the culture that surrounds these rather heinous pursuits. When Owen’s athletic future is snuffed out, he turns to the law and becomes a police officer; when Duncan is let go from the Bisk cookie factory due to sweeping cutbacks, he looks to the other direction, and to a man no one should have the misfortune of knowing—Lemmie Drinkwater, one of Cataract City’s most malignant parasites.
Though with each new part the novel switches back and forth between Owen and Duncan’s perspectives, Cataract City really feels first and foremost like Duncan’s story; even when being told from Owen’s point of view, it feels as if he’s telling us more about Duncan than he is about himself. This is largely due in part to Duncan being the more sympathetic of the two characters (a fact driven home by the incident with the baby bird near the close of Part One). At the novel’s outset, we know a few things for certain: Duncan is in jail for murder, though the details remain impressively vague for a long time; Owen is at least partially responsible for Duncan’s incarceration and is carrying a fair amount of guilt as a result; and we know from how everyone reacts to him that Duncan is still, in spite of being in prison for nearly eight years, a stand-up kind of a guy—a good egg who made some mistakes but never really wanted to do anyone any harm. Neither of the two boys was ever especially intelligent or career-minded; it’s entirely in Duncan’s soft side—the side of him that falls head over heels for Edwina, the city’s “Jezebel” (and the tonal opposite of the manic-pixie-dream girl); the side that rescues two abandoned greyhound pups from a dumpster; the side that would do nearly anything to settle his debts—that the novel finds its footing, and the underlying criticisms of capital-M Masculinity are laid bare.
Davidson presents the sort of masculinity defined by Bruiser Mahoney and wannabe gangster Lemmie Drinkwater as being wholly destructive—archaic mindsets working at odds with the world, never in concert with it. The only places that sort of lifestyle is able to find any sort of traction is in the underground in which Duncan is inevitably drawn, but never quite acclimates to. His reasons for going into that world in the first place are not because he is so sock-stuffingly tough but because, either due to upbringing or environment, he sees no other option for himself.
Furthermore, Duncan is safest when swimming in familiar pools. For him, leaving Cataract City is a pipe dream—a fantasy lived by others like Owen who had opportunities he himself lacked. In this sense, it’s easy to see why Duncan, though too empathetic for it, would turn not to a life of crime but to opportunities he saw as comfortably blurring the line between right and wrong. Every chance taken is something he can swallow if it brings him that little bit closer to getting away. To this same end, there’s security in Duncan’s world when those nearest and dearest to him fall back down to earth—like in how Owen’s abruptly over and done pro basketball career mirrors Dolly the greyhound’s racing accident which made her “… more touchable. Afterwards, I could hold her—just for a few minutes, but that was something.” His love for those around him is at odds with his fear at being left behind.
There’s a sense of impending tragedy throughout the novel’s second and third parts, as the boys become men and we are driven closer and closer to the moment Duncan’s life changes for the worse. As previously mentioned, the details surrounding the murder are clouded throughout most of the novel, and when finally revealed the accidental nature of the moment lends it an even greater degree of sadness. All this threat and misery is backdropped with visceral, stomach-churning scenes of dog fighting and bare-knuckle boxing. It is in these sections that Davidson’s passion for imagery strikes iron-fucking-hot:
The man brought one world-eating fist down into my face and everything exploded in starlight riots, hollowness threading down my jaw as if nothing anchored it anymore: my face was only a mask, the contents of my skull obliterated.
In the novel’s final part, together again in the place they were first lost as kids, Owen and Duncan are forced to endure incredible, seemingly ungodly amounts of pain and physical strain, yet they survive. What they’re capable of enduring in the novel’s closing pages is incredible, but it’s an agony they themselves selected as if a form of self-punishment—for accepting their miserable lot in life and the city’s role in keeping them in place, and for paying so fully into the myth of masculinity-that-was. Because however strong they are, whatever pain they survive, neither is strong enough to accept full responsibility for their actions—Cataract City itself must always shoulder at least a part of the blame.
Cataract City is one of those grab-you-by-the-throat books. I’ve come across precious few of them this year, however this novel and its deconstruction of masculinity would play well paired with my favourite book from this year, Lauren Beuke’s The Shining Girls, which offered a different sort of take-down of old-school masculinity presented as being antithetical and antagonistic towards contemporary feminist ideals… by way of a time travelling psychopath.
Whether or not Cataract City takes home the Giller Prize for which it has been shortlisted this coming Tuesday, it remains one of the most lyrical, satisfying books I’ve read all year. Highly recommended in all its skull-shattering glory.
… And all that armchair analysis without ever mentioning the book’s title mirroring Owen and Duncan’s terrible lack of vision in their own lives. Lack of vision, cataracts…