Title: Cataract City
Author: Craig Davidson
Published in the US by: Graywolf Press
Genre: Literary Fiction, with a sprinkling of Coming-of-Age and an occasional dash of Survival Adventure
Awards: Giller Prize nominee (Canada)
Personal Score: 8.5 / 10
The Characters of Import:
Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs are best friends – have been since they were kids growing up on two very different sides of the middle class spectrum. Though they’re forced to drift apart for a while, life conspires to throw Owe and Dunk back together again and again. They never seem quite able to escape their shared history, though their friendship takes some rough hits. These two are also the perspective characters, the narration switching between them.
Edwina Murphy is hard as steel and caters to no person or thing except herself. She enters the boys’ lives as their babysitter, but gets fired after sneaking her boyfriend into Owe’s house. She falls in love with both boys in time, but refuses to wait for either one when she knows it is time for her to move on.
Bruiser Mahoney is a small-time wrestler (real name Dade Rathburn) and the reason Owe and Dunk became friends in the first place. Mildly unstable and disillusioned with the world, though generally harmless, his impact on the boys is irreversible when he takes them away from a parking lot brawl and out to the woods after one of his matches.
Lemuel Drinkwater may not get involved until late in the game, but he marks the final watershed moment dividing Owe and Dunk. A smuggler, dog racer, and fight organizer (for both dogs and people), he offers Duncan a cigarette smuggling job that places him right in the path of Owen’s police work. Ruthless and enterprising, he works only for his personal gain, which leads to a climactic showdown in the novel’s final pages.
An overview of the novel’s major players would not be complete without Dolly and Frag, the two greyhounds Duncan finds in a dumpster one day. He offers one to Owen, who christens the pup “Fragrant Meat” after the word Mongolians call the dogs they plan to eat, but he eventually shortens it out of regret. Meanwhile, Dunk raises the “Dolly Express,” who becomes a racing sensation. Both dogs take on traits of their owners and follow their own poignant stories that change Duncan’s and Owen’s lives.
A Brief Overview and my Professional Reflection
The novel takes place in Cataract City, a tourist trap off of Niagara Falls where the population works their whole lives for places like the Nabisco cookie factory, where they’re identified by the line they work – Vanilla Wafers, for example. The men are bitter and devoted to their bars, spending their money on cheap drinks and smuggled cigarettes. It’s a hard place, and if you don’t measure up, you don’t make it.
The narrative uses a flashback framing device, with the boys both reflecting on their past and narrating their present. Generally, this device is a strong narrative choice that adds weight to their decisions and allows Davidson to explore the characters and their world. However, the timeline flipping from flashback to present sometimes creates confusion over the sequence of events. Nevertheless, the confusion always gets resolved and the framing device works well for both the narrative and theme.
Though it is easy to say that the primary relationship in the novel is between Owen and Duncan, and eventually Edwina, it is as accurate, if not more, to say that the most important relationships explored are between the boys and the city, exploring what the city has made them. In my reading about the novel, I encountered several reviews that describe this book as a paragon of masculine, testosterone-soaked literature. And they have a point – the novel is filled with fights, guns, and the drive to get ahead in a brilliant balance between action and meaning. The ideas expressed, however, go much deeper than an expression of masculine ambition. I’ve been reflecting on some of the quotes in this book that hit me particularly hard for days. As I type this, two thoughts in particular float around my mind: 1) That this book shows the curious relationship between growth and constancy remarkably well, and 2) how an idea presented in Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel The Sandman – that perhaps people sometimes make their own traps and cages, backing into them and acting surprised all the while – might be present in the novel.
It is undeniable that Davidson has a mastery over language. His descriptions are vivid, and his discussions about home and friendship are poetic. The way he portrays action is brutal and grounded when it needs to be, but also keyed into the narrators’ thoughts so intensely that the reader knows their emotions perfectly. Though there were some phrasings that struck me as strange and some moments of repetition that I found unnecessary, the words are chosen well to resonate with the reader and with each other.
Cataract City is both entertaining and introspective. The story hits hard along a full range of emotion while discussing themes that are universal and portraying experiences that, though the specifics might not be the same, are formative moments for a huge number of people. Davidson proves to have a strong understanding of humanity and the transitional moments that guide our lives.