Sometimes survival means fighting the bad fight
The promotional jacket copy for Kevin Hardcastle’s new novel In The Cage comes out swinging: “A feared cage fighter in mixed martial arts, Daniel is closing in on greatness—until an injury derails his career,” we are told. “Out of work in his country hometown, Daniel slips into the underworld, moonlighting as muscle for a childhood-friend-turned-mid-level gangster.”
Advertising this as unabashedly generic has its own kind of poetry, but one imagines it may also cause the typical reader of literary fiction to roll their eyes hard enough to induce vertigo. What more pompous decades referred to as “pulp fiction” may be riding a new wave of critical interest, but there remains something giggle-inducing about the phrase “a feared cage fighter in mixed martial arts.” Which is a shame, because the book is much more clever, and more nuanced, and just basically better than the marketing makes it out to be. Hardcastle is hardly a neophyte when it comes to the slash and gurgle of the crime thriller, but there is something almost Balzacian in his facility with descriptive detail.
Hardcastle established himself as a thoughtful and candid chronicler of the rural Canadian working class in his first book, Debris, a collection of short stories published in 2015. In The Cage brings the gritty, realistic texture of his stories to bear on a plot that is pulpier, and more archetypal, but the link between the two is clear—indeed, In The Cage is a coda to one of the stories in Debris. When we first meet Daniel in “Montana Border,” he is a young mixed martial artist trying to find his way in the world, drifting from fight to fight across the prairies on both sides of the 49th. The story ends with him holed up in a house with a redheaded girl named Sarah, who is pregnant with his child, waiting for a crew of bikers to get tired of looking for him. By the time In The Cage begins, twelve years later, Daniel and Sarah’s fling has turned into a loving partnership that revolves around respect, mutual support, and a daughter named Madelyn.
When the theft of his welding rig derails Daniel’s career, grinding poverty forces him to take up clandestine work as an enforcer for Clayton, an old family friend operating a crime ring out of a nearby Mohawk reserve. It is hardly Daniel’s first experience on the shady side of the law, but times are changing and Clayton is consolidating his grip on the area’s drug industry by waging an escalating war against the local bikers and other semi-organized criminals. A particularly nasty hit job convinces Daniel to wash his hands of the business, but reliable work is hard to come by, and eventually he rolls the dice on a return to the boxing ring—with unfortunately brutal consequences. There’s not much left at the end of the novel that isn’t bleeding heavily.
Debris was published two years ago, but In The Cage was written first. It shows. The short stories, which garnered their author the Trillium Book Award in 2016, are understated, deadpan accounts of poverty, crime, and life on the edges of Canadian society, but the novel has a sprawling, bloated quality; it runs to more than 300 pages, and one could easily imagine cutting 70 and losing nothing.
Hardcastle hangs his plot on a story arc that a century of westerns and crime thrillers have made commonplace: a compromised but essentially good man goes clean, circumstances beyond his control pull him back into crime, loss drives him to vengeance, mayhem ensues. Daniel has moral scruples about working with Clayton and his deputy, Wallace King, but we can guess from the beginning that Daniel, who lives by the proverbial sword, stands a good chance of dying by it. As the story unfolds, Hardcastle doesn’t so much keep us in suspense as string us along with vignettes of the hard life in rural Ontario that sometimes feel an awful lot like filler. There are decidedly too many scenes where Daniel sits alone in his kitchen, drinking beers and being stoic, and when hell eventually breaks loose in the last 30 pages, I was both moved by the tragic inevitability of it and thoroughly relieved that something interesting, finally, was happening.
This is not to suggest that Hardcastle isn’t doing anything new here. By splicing elements of the realist novel and the crime thriller, Hardcastle dances across the supposed divide between highbrow literature and low brow genre fiction. But the freshest thing about In The Cage is its depiction of crime and punishment in a rarely represented corner of central Ontario. Hardcastle never tells us the novel’s events take place in the Midland-Penetanguishene region of Simcoe County, but anyone familiar with the area (or Hardcastle’s previous work—it is where he grew up, and a setting he often returns to in his fiction) will immediately recognize the landscape and its complex mix of cultures.
Hardcastle’s Simcoe is defined by the sharp contrast between the local population (rural, poor) and the affluent tourists and cottagers who invade it during the summer, but is also split along complex ethnic lines. The Ojibwa of Christian Island, the Mohawks of the Wahta territory, and the French and English settler communities are connected in fraught and intimate ways, and one of the most remarkable dimensions of the novel is Hardcastle’s navigation (fraught and intimate in its own way) of the small-p politics of being a settler writer portraying Indigenous characters.
Clayton, for example, is described early on as being one quarter Mohawk. His nephew Tarbell, the sociopathic hitman who emerges as the novel’s main antagonist, is also described as having Mohawk ancestry (though he grew up far from the reserve). Daniel may or may not be part Ojibwa (his father was “funny about” the possible family connection to Christian Island), but Daniel identifies and for the most part is identified as white, as does Madelyn. Daniel and Madelyn’s closest friends, Murray and Ella, are Mohawks, and so are several of Tarbell’s victims—this despite the fact that Clayton’s main rivals are the overwhelmingly white biker gangs. The picture that emerges is of a community where ethnicity is always a factor in belonging, but is not always the decisive one; where enmity is not the inevitable result of identity politics; where violence comes not only from long-standing differences, but also from the friction of kinship.
The most important force in these characters’ world is poverty, and the most important survival tools are friendship and vengeance. If modernity is in part defined as the process by which the impersonal forces of the bureaucratic nation-state displace the loyalties of tribe and kin, then despite the automatic weapons and rusted pick-up trucks, the world Hardcastle’s characters live in is essentially pre-modern. Violence is personal in this world, and so is justice. Just as the government seems unwilling to confront the structural problems facing those down and out in Simcoe County, it is also powerless to stop the chaos unleashed by Clayton and Tarbell. It is telling that Hardcastle has Constable Smith, the police officer, function as a kind of Greek chorus: Smith observes, makes notes, and asks questions, and when the shooting starts he can be relied on to arrive several hours later and write up a report on the damage. When disaster finally overtakes Daniel’s family, the brutal personal way he responds feels inevitable.
Loyalty and retribution may be a fundamental part of the logic of many types of genre fiction, but Hardcastle’s real skill—and, I would argue, his most important contribution to Canadian literature at the moment—is in showing how true they can be for many living on the grey edges of Canadian society. There is something essentially conservative about genre fiction, insofar as genre generally relies on (or perhaps it would be better to say is constituted by) a series of familiar tropes: the lone gunman against the gang of villains, or the old veteran coming out of retirement to set things right one last time. It is comforting because it presents a stable, balanced world in which the equilibrium is occasionally thrown off by some kind of recognizable evil. But this is not how many of us experience day-to-day life, and by blending the language and banality of realism with the violent, fateful narrative arc of a thriller, Hardcastle delivers something that is neither guilt-free entertainment nor dutiful social commentary. His account of Canadian life can neither be written off as dirty good fun, nor enlisted to support some kind of predictable ideological program. It is for precisely this reason that readers should look past the macho fists decorating its cover.