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An excerpt of Cataract City by Craig Davidson

This fall on Canada Writes we're bringing you excerpts of new work from emerging and established Canadian Writers. This week is an excerpt of Craig Davidson’s novel Cataract City, one of the 13 titles on the 2013 Giller shortlist. 


Craig Davidson wrote a complete draft of his 416-page novel Cataract City in just a year and a half. (Editing, he acknowledges, is the time consuming part of the process). Although a fast writer, Davidson says the writing wasn’t easy. “It was a confidence issue,” he explains. “I was asking myself, am I ever going to write another book that has value to anyone? Is this any good at all?”

Why did you pick this particular scene for the excerpt? 
It’s emblematic of what the novel is about, the period of childhood when you recognize adults aren’t always right, that some of the things you believed as a child are illusions. It’s a necessary part of growing up, a rite of passage. 

The novel shifts back and forth between your two main characters, Owen and Duncan, although the bulk of the story is told from Duncan’s perspective. What made you choose this structure? 
 The initial draft was in Owen’s head, and in Duncan’s head, and I used third person omniscient, to tell the story from different perspectives. My editor said, “Let’s keep it in one of their heads.” Duncan ended up being the beating heart of narrative. He is a synthesis of guys I knew in Niagara Falls, and Owen kind of represents me, so I took a back seat in the story. I felt that Duncan was the more compelling character of the two.

We launched the CBC Short Story Prize two weeks ago. What advice would you offer for people trying to write a winning short story? 
One of the things I learned when I was writing short story, which is a special beast, is that my own life, while boring to me, had scintillating moments that I could cherry pick and use in my fiction. You can take little elements of your life and your own experiences and put these senses and scenes in your characters’ heads and in their point of view. When I was writing short stories, this was the biggest advance I ever made.

*Please note: the excerpt contains mature content.

Cataract City
by Craig Davidson

The wrestlers sat on folding chairs arrayed haphazardly around a wide tiled room. Here and there were open duffel bags, knee braces, piles of sodden towels and grimy balls of tape. The room was foggy from the steam billowing out from the shower stalls. It smelled of Tiger Balm and something to which I could give no name.

“Hey, can I borrow your deodorant?” Disco Dirk said to the Masked Assassin.

“I wouldn’t give it to him,” one of the Lucky Aces said. “He’s got that rash on his dick he picked up in the Sioux.”

“Ah, go fuck your hat,” Disco Dirk said as the other men roared. One by one they took notice of us. None made any effort to cover up. The Brain Smasher brushed the tangles out of his hair, naked in front of the mirror.

“Bruiser,” he said. “I think somebody’s here looking for you!”

“Is it Estelle?” came Bruiser’s voice from the showers. “I told that one it was once and no more. I’m no tomcatter.”

“It isn’t,” the Brain Smasher said.

“Well who in hell is it?” Bruiser said, stepping into the room with a towel wrapped round his waist.

Maybe it was his wet hair hanging down his shoulders in dark ropes instead of the wild mane I was accustomed to. Or maybe it was the water glistening in the concavity between his chest muscles that I’d never seen before. Or the plastic cup with an inch of piss-coloured liquid in it that he downed quickly before tossing the empty cup into the showers. Or was it simply the shock of seeing Bruiser Mahoney in a locker room surrounded by naked men, amidst piles of spangly boots and  neon  tights? Whatever  it  was, he  looked shockingly human for the first time.

“Mr. Mahoney,” my father said, finding his voice. “This is my son, Dutchie.”

“And my son, Duncan,” Mr. Diggs said, guiding his boy forward. “They’re your biggest fans.”

“Oh, are they now?” Bruiser Mahoney said. “I must say they ought to be, that you’d bring them into this snakepit with these vipers!” He laughed and strode forward, offering a hand that swallowed my father’s own. He shook Mr. Diggs’ hand next, then knelt down before me and Dunk like a man preparing to accept a knighthood.

“Look at you. My wide-eyed little warriors.”

Up close his eyes were blue, terrifically blue, the skin around them  scored with little cracks like the  fissures in alabaster. He smelled of carbolic soap. The cleft in his chin bristled with untrimmed stubble.

“Welcome to the bestiary.” He smiled. The point was broken off one eye tooth. “Fancy joining the carnival, boys?”

It was overwhelming to be so close to him, to all these men. I still struggled with the notion that the Masked Assassin might lend Disco Dirk his deodorant. Was it possible that any of these men actually wore deodorant, or stood in line at the post office to mail a parcel or behaved in any way like normal people? How could a creature like the Boogeyman have a job, a mortgage, a wife? It was impossible to imagine him grilling steaks in his backyard, his lizard-green face grinning above a Kiss the Cook apron. I had figured these men vanished behind the curtain after a match and lived in some nether-realm, squabbling amongst themselves like petulant demi-gods until they stepped back through that curtain to settle their grievances the next month.

“You’re  my favourite wrestler.” There  was a quaver in Dunk’s voice. “You’re sort of . . . well, perfect.”

Bruiser Mahoney laughed. His breath washed over me. I caught the same smell that I’d once caught coming off my father when he’d stepped into my room late one night, watching me silently from the foot of the bed.

“Perfect, he says. You hear that, fellas? It’s like I keep telling you!” “A perfect boondoggle,” Outbacker Luke cracked.
Bruiser Mahoney took our fathers aside.

“. . . come by your house, do the dog-and-pony,” I heard him say. Our fathers sunk their hands into their pockets and smiled politely. “. . . reasonable rate . . . wouldn’t gyp you fellas . . .”

My father rested his hand on Mahoney’s shoulder, patting it the way you might pat a dog. Next he reached for his wallet. Mahoney’s big hand went to my father’s wrist, trapping his hand in his pocket.

“Later,” he said softly. “Either of you have a stick of gum?” When he came back his breath smelled of spearmint instead of whatever had been in the plastic cup. He grabbed a Polaroid camera from his duffel, handed it to Disco Dirk.

“Take a shot of me with these little Bruisers,” he said, kneeling to grab us around the shoulders. His power was immense: it was like being hugged by a yeti.

To Duncan and Dutchie, Mahoney wrote on the still-developing photo. Two warriors in the Bruiser Mahoney armada.

He signed it with his initials—Yours, BM—and  for an instant I was terrified I’d laugh. Sometimes my mom would warn me through the bathroom door: “If you’re taking a big BM, Dutchie, make sure you flush twice or you’ll plug the pipes.”

When Bruiser handed the photo to Dunk, Dunk stared at him gratefully and said: “I want to grow up to be just like you.”

For a moment Mahoney’s expression slipped. Under it was the face of a creature who was old, haunted and lost.

“Ah, you’ll grow up, boy,” he said. “You’ll learn.”

From CATARACT CITY by Craig Davidson. Copyright © 2013 Craig Davidson. Reprinted by permission of Doubleday Canada.

Craig Davidson was born and grew up in St. Catharines, Ontario, near Niagara Falls. He has published three previous books of literary fiction: Rust and Bone, which was made into an acclaimed film of the same name, The Fighter, and Sarah Court. Davidson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his articles and journalism have been published in the National Post, Esquire, GQ, The Walrus, and The Washington Post, among other places. He lives in Toronto with his partner and their child.


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