Reading Craig Davidson’s Cataract City took me somewhere else.
You might think, if you have heard something of the novel, that I am about to say Niagara Falls.
But as much as the novel is about two boys’ coming-of-age in this environs, it is a study of how ‘what-came-before’ morphs and alters into ‘now’.
Duncan Diggs and Owen Stuckey were inseparable friends; as boys, they experienced all the ordinary and remarkable events that comprise a growing up, and the intense – almost inexplicable – connection that engenders.
As the years pass, their lives continue to intersect, in sometimes startlingly unpredictable ways. In unfolding the narrative, Craig Davidson begins with the present, as one is released from prison and the other receives the call for a ride ‘home’. But what is ‘home’ after one has been incarcerated for eight years. And what is ‘friendship’ when it exists alongside something-like-betrayal.
Cataract City contains a set of hard questions. And it presents a particular view of the world, which does not necessarily align with readers’ expectations of fiction.
“But I think people can be more beautiful for being broken.” This makes for distinctly uncomfortable reading.
The story contains plenty of brokenness. Some of it is described in visceral and bloody detail. Frequently, things come to blows. Sometimes to shreds and gashes, ruptures and tears.
It plays out in a time when boys were listening to John Fogerty’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”, when bright yellow could recall the colour of thick plastic McDonalds straws or flimsy boxes of no-name cereal. This is Cataract City.
In tangible terms: “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.”
In metaphorical terms: “But you have to understand this: Cataract City is possessive. The city has a steel-trap memory, and it holds a grudge. Nothing that grows here is ever allowed to leave.”
And beyond those boundaries: “Memory like a sickness, memory like a drug. I stood in the lengthening shadow of the lane, swallowed up by the black hole of my past.”
And, lastingly: “The city’s got a wet-sidewalk memory: press something into it and the impression remains forever.”
Duncan and Owen both still live in Cataract City (setting aside the question of a temporary residence in Kingston Pen). But their experience of the present is cast against a past which cloys and clouds, like a sickness, a drug, a wet sidewalk. There are grudges left unspoken, there are confinements beyond steel bars.
Time presses and recedes. “The next moments unfolded in brilliant slow motion, as if the world were a 78 rpm record played at a laid-back 33.” These two characters are, in many ways, out of time. Counter-time. One, having had nothing but time to sit and contemplate the events of the past, who finds, upon return, that these events are both startlingly different and painfully familiar.
As they look back and negotiate the ever-shifting present, Craig Davidson takes care to depict their surroundings and experiences in bold detail, harnessing everyday images to bring a layer of unshakable realism to the story.
Consider the author’s use of language to engage the reader’s senses: “My cot felt no thicker than a communion wafer, coiled corkscrewing into my spine.” “The clean smell of the forest: cut-potato scent of earth, dry leaves leaving a taste of cinnamon on the tongue.”
Often the descriptions evoke a disturbing, painful response: “Blazing down the track so fast her skin must’ve screamed.” Soon a persistent doubt burrowed under my skin like a chigger.”
Sometimes a shield is offered: “”It was as though I’d gone into a protective cocoon that had mummified my sight and smell and taste, and now, back on the outside, my senses were hyper-attuned.”
But mostly the fears rage on, unchecked though transformed:
“As you get older, the texture of your fear changes. You’re no longer scared of a dead wrestler stalking you through the woods – even if you mind wants to go there, it’s lost the nimbleness to make those fantastic leaps of imagination. Your fears become adult ones: of crushing debts and extra responsibilities, sick parents and sick kids and dying without love. Fears of not being the man you thought you’d become back when you still believed wrestling was real and that you’d die in convulsions if you inhaled the white gas from a shattered light bulb.”
Readers inwardly wonder how much of this narrative can be believed. “But even back then I knew cheating was a big part of telling a story.”
But outwardly there is little time to debate; the pace of the novel is relentless, the switches in time are urgent and scenes in the past as raw as scenes in the present.
“And you’ll look back in the aftermath, trying to piece together how A met B, but you know what? The threads are tangled, yet the links exist in ways you can’t even imagine. And whatever you owe, you pay. The Point. It’s in the water; it’s in the sky. Things collapse into it, things spring from it. We’re all either moving towards it or walking away from it.”
Drama is heightened; a novel about life in Cataract City is as much a pressure chamber as one’s dad once warned, stained with grease and blood. And, yet, beyond the violence, there is something ordinary about this story.
“I toted up the facts of my life: I was jobless, wifeless, childless, living with my parents, sleeping in the bed I’d slept in as a boy. I was an ex-con with a busted face whose joints ached on humid days.”
Where each of us goes to sleep at night, the thoughts we have before we drift off, the dreams we dare to have even when they seem distinctly out-of-joint: this is the stuff of life, through the ages.
“But those younger, other selves are never really gone, are they? All their possibilities. Why would they be? They’re only waiting for you to chase them down and reclaim them, right?”
And that is where Craig Davidson’s Cataract City took me. To all those possibilities. Owen’s. Duncan’s. But my own, as well.