‘Cataract City’ by Craig Davidson

Cataract-City

Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday Canada; 416 pages; 2013.

Craig Davidson’s Cataract City — shortlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize — may possibly be the most male book I’ve ever read — and certainly the most male book I read this year. Think of a male sporting pursuit — go-karting, wrestling, bare knuckle fist fighting, greyhound racing and dog fighting — and it will be mentioned here.

The story is set in the working class neighbourhood of Niagra Falls, the Cataract City of the title, where Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs grew up together but slowly drifted apart — Owen is now a police officer, Duncan has just got out of jail following an eight-year stint — and follows their lives from childhood through to the present day. The central hub of the novel is Dunk’s involvement in a cross-border cigarette smuggling operation that goes drastically wrong — but can his best friend save him?

There’s no doubt that Davidson is a great storyteller, but this is a relentlessly bleak and often violent book. And the ending, which mirrors the beginning — the two characters spend an inordinately long time lost in the wilderness — became so preposterous, I was tempted to throw the book across the room.

That said, I do think this novel throws up plenty of questions — to what extent does our background influence our lives?; can we ever escape our working class roots?; how important is male friendship and what bonds men together? — which elevates it from being a lot more than just a boys’ own adventure tale, though it certainly has all the right ingredients to make a terrific film — a tension between good and evil, a crime or two, and plenty of action.

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4 thoughts on “‘Cataract City’ by Craig Davidson

  1. You are not the only one who didn’t like Nora. I thought she was giant pain in the neck. I struggled to finish the book. But I have read other Claire Messud novels in the past and enjoyed them. I particularly liked The Emperor’s Children. Have you read that one?

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  2. This was my first Messud, so, no, I haven’t read The Emperor’s Children, although it’s long been on my wishlist, mainly because I do enjoy reading books that are set in New York.

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  3. I didn’t have a problem with Nora so much (in fact I could relate to her quite a bit), it was more the way the novel started off so well and then felt very padded in the middle before the conclusion. I think on finishing it I felt like I’d read a Very Good book in the sense that it felt like it ought to have been good for me even if I didn’t particularly like it all that much. Sort of a ‘broccoli book’. I certainly enjoyed ‘The Emperor’s Children’ a lot more, and I do like Messud’s writing (I’ve also read ‘The Hunters’ and have ‘The Last Life’ on my shelves).
    I agree with pretty much everything you’ve written about ‘Cataract City’: you can fairly smell the testosterone wafting from its pages; the opening section (which reads almost like a self-contained novella) is echoed to a ridiculous degree by the conclusion; the action set pieces in the second half are relentless with one leading into another like one of the more mindless Bond films; and yet for all that I really really enjoyed it, and you’re right: it’d make a cracking film.

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  4. I so love the term “broccoli book”, David… I may well have to use that in a blog post at some point 😉
    Even though I wasn’t enamoured of this book — it was a nice enough read but didn’t wow me on any level — I’d be inclined to try some of her earlier stuff, so thanks for the tip offs about the books you have read.

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