Although I can’t say the subject matter of Canadian writer Craig Davidson’s Giller-nominated novel Cataract City was necessarily my thing (boys lost in the woods, greyhound racing, dog fights, bare knuckled fist fighting, etc), I found myself sinking whole heartedly into this story of two best friends: Owen Stucky and Duncan Digs. I think it’s because Davidson (who also writes horror novels under the name Nick Cutter, the only one of which I’ve read is The Troop) is such an excellent writer and his stories are so filled with nostalgia and melancholy and hope that it’s impossible not to really care about his characters even though their shenanigans might not be the usual fare for a woman in her late middle age.
Craig and Duncan live in Cataract City (aka Niagara Falls), a city which they seem to love and loathe in equal measure. When the novel opens, Duncan is just getting out of the Kingston Penitentiary after serving 2912 nights in prison. Of those nights, Duncan tells us, “two were the longest: the first and the last.” When he gets back to his parents’ house, he pries up a loose floorboard in his bedroom closet and from the cavity under the floor, takes out an old cigar box, filled with the treasures of his youth. The mementos spark his memories and the novel begins its meandering narrative, told in the voices of both Duncan and his childhood friend, Owen.
As described by the boys, Cataract City is a place where dreams go to die. Owen says “If you grew up in Cataract City and earned a university degree, chances are you left town. If you grew up in Cataract City and managed to finish high school, chances are you took a job at the dry docks, Redpath Sugar, the General Motors plant in St. Catherines or the Bisk.” Both the boys’ fathers work at the Bisk, the Nabisco plant, and their “dads carried the smell of their lines home with them.”
The city of your birth was the softest trap imaginable. So soft you didn’t even feel how badly you were snared – how could it be a trap when you knew its every spring and tooth?
Duncan and Owen meet when they are ten; even though they “both lived on Rickard Street and went to the same school” they had never spoken to each other. When another boy tackles Owen one day in the playground, Duncan comes to his rescue and the two boys bond over their shared love of wrestling. It’s wrestling that gets the boys into their first scrape.
Cataract City bounces back and forth between then and now, changing narrators effortlessly. Although the boys take different roads in life (Owen becomes a cop after a knee injury squashes his chances to play professional basketball and Duncan, well, he ends up in jail), the two never stop caring for each other. The melancholic nostalgic seeps into Davidson’s story and it’s hard not to be reminded of days gone by when even the characters long to
be kids again, just for a while. Revoke for just one day our breaking bodies and tortured minds. I would haven given anything to spend one more day as we once had, even if it was one of those piss-away afternoons reading comic books in Owen’s basement while the rain clicked in the downspout like marbles.
I loved the journey these two take, some of it literal, some figurative. I loved the insights into friendship and family and love and memory. I loved all the references to Canadian things (The Beachcombers and Rowdy Roddy Piper). I loved the struggle to figure out what it all means in the end.
An instant in time, measurable in seconds, that acts as the hinge for everything you’ve ever done. Everything feeds into that moment: your backlog of experience and behaviours determine how you enter that moment and how you’ll walk away from it afterwards. Every way you’ve ever been hurt, every grievance nursed, every secret fear, those moments where you’ve stood up or stepped down and all the love in your body – it all matters when you reach the Point. It is all brought to bear.
The only other Davidson novel I’ve read is The Saturday Night Ghost Club and I really loved it. I will make a concerted effort to read his other work, for sure. Highly recommended.