Cataract City

Craig Davidson might be Canadian, but his novel has the defiantly beating heart of a Bruce Springsteen song. Cataract City, the local nickname for Niagara Falls, Ontario, is a dying industry town with a Nabisco factory (“the Bisk”), pervasive alcoholism, and a foreboding proximity to the only national landmark with a reputation for stunt suicides. Over the course of the novel, two lifelong friends, Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs, will taste a little glory and a lot more defeat. They’ll warm bar stools at their regular dive. They’ll even fight over the same woman. You might as well accompany it with a spin of Born to Run.

Thankfully, Cataract City surpasses its genre trappings, courtesy of Davidson’s immense talent. His previous books include Sarah Court and Rust and Bone, which was adapted into a gritty, moving French film starring Marion Cotillard. This novel is no less punishing, particularly in its scenes of dog fighting and underground boxing. Yet it also exhibits a crucial big-heartedness toward its characters.

Through winding flashbacks we follow Owen and Duncan from childhood through the vicissitudes of adult life. They don’t have it easy. At age twelve they’re casually kidnapped by wrestler Bruiser Mahoney, leading to three days lost in the woods. The boys’ hero worship of Mahoney is met with adult menace: he becomes the Ghost of Christmas Future that only Cataract City could dream up. It would be facile to say the boys are forever haunted by this trauma: many worse things lay in store for them.

And so Owen and Duncan hand off their bad luck like a relay baton, through high school and the short plateaus of their twenties. Their alternating narration works well to illustrate the Rashomon nature of male friendship, how stubbornness can be mistakenly read for confidence, how youthful slights can balloon into years of avoidance. Owen will pursue glory on the basketball court and even get out of Cataract City for a spell. Duncan attempts to settle down with the older and wiser Edwina, work at the Bisk, and resist the gravitational pull of local kingpin Lemuel Drinkwater. It doesn’t go well.

I admit some initial skepticism. When a verbally dexterous writer like Davidson employs first-person narration, the temptation is there to use words and observations outside of the character’s natural voice. (Typical offenders are the preadolescent and hyper-articulate narrators of novels like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.) When Humbert Humbert notes the “golden midges,” his erudition makes sense; less so for Davidson’s narrators. Would they know the difference between midges and no-see-ums? Would we?

These off moments are rare. Davidson has a talent for moving past the easy televisual note to one of process and change. On a high school basketball game: “The gym was so packed that sweat and breath caused hazy halos to form around the sodium vapor lights.” On the local bars: “You pick your watering hole and cling to it the rest of your life like a drowning rat to a bit of Styrofoam bobbing in the sewer.” (Drowning rats is right. Self-anesthetization is the town’s unofficial pastime.)

Throughout, Niagara Falls works like Chekhov’s gun: rarely seen, always there. Duncan remarks that its sound “followed you like a lost dog.” The waterfalls’ hazardous nature takes corporeal form in the almost cartoonishly evil Drinkwater. He’s a force upon which Owen and Duncan act, nothing more. The novel leans heavily on Cataract City as an all-consuming maw of men’s lives and dreams. It’s a terrible place, impossible to escape: Duncan’s attempt at a romantic getaway to New Orleans dead-ends in Kentucky after car trouble. Owen returns after a spell in Calgary, his time cut short by a tragic bit of violence. If you’re cursed, might as well live where the beer’s cheap.

Fortunately the characters keep the callousness at bay, and Davidson is smart enough to change the scenery and alter the chronology when needed. The book opens with Duncan ending an eight-year prison stint, the circumstances of which become clear much later. Flashbacks to the jailhouse, with shades of Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, introduce us to the boxer Silas Garrow, a much-needed source of levity. Garrow will appear later as Duncan plots his slow-burn revenge against Drinkwater, which may as well be revenge against Cataract City itself.

It’s mighty difficult to take on fate, or “cosmic fairness” as Duncan calls it. But it is this insistence on pushing against the narrow limits of the life you’re born into, whether those limits are real or self-imposed, that elevates Cataract City into something remarkable. Halfway through the novel someone says, “Any creature who fails to accept its limits can be a danger to itself.” While this danger fuels the novel — alongside the pervasive sense that it’ll get worse before it gets better — it is Davidson’s masterful prose that delivers moments of hardscrabble beauty.  Here’s hoping the Boss reads it on his next vacation.