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Cascade by Craig Davidson

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

Davidson dazzles. Definitely. He is the much-praised author of the short story collection Rust and Bone (2005) (finalist for the 2006 Danuta Gleed Literary Ward) and the novel Cataract City (2013), shortlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize. In his new short story collection, Cascade, he returns to Cataract City—a stand-in and actual nickname for the town of Niagara Falls, Ontario—to examine the often tortured lives of its citizens and, indeed, in the final story, to look into the ravaged soul of the city itself.

As a writer, Davidson is something of a virtuoso—impressing, even overwhelming, the reader with many-faceted characters and complex factual details, such as the process of pediatric brain surgery, the origin and effects of birth defects, the slang and technique of professional basketball, and more. All too often such depth of description can come off as mere showmanship, and at times Davidson approaches the border of needless excess. But he never crosses the line. What he is doing is submerging the reader in his subject, soaking us in whatever the character is doing, be it searching for a brain tumour in a premature baby, teaching arm wrestling, or practicing basketball shots. The vocabulary becomes hypnotic, sucking the reader into the story and delivering a visceral impact that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

Davidson loves ambiguity as well. Most of his stories end on an uncertain note—a fate undecided, an action incomplete. This is a little confusing, as it is not always apparent what is happening at the end or what will happen next. These are not trivial matters, either. In a couple of stories, it is unclear whether a character will live or die.

But such is the nature of life: uncertainty. Davidson clearly wants us to feel that intimately, not from a safe distance. This also works.

Another feature of Davidson’s work is that most of his stories feature people who have been damaged in some way, whether physically or emotionally—a teenager is missing a hand, a surgeon’s body is half withered, a children’s aid worker has multiple miscarriages.

There are only six stories in this collection. Several are quite long, though.

The first story, “The Ghost Lights,” tells of a winter car accident where a mother must try to save her newborn baby after the car driven by her husband crashes into a tree, killing him and leaving them exposed to the ravages of the cold. Presenting the struggle of a human being against the harshness, it is evocative of Jack London’s “To Build A Fire." But it goes deeper. The mother shares her memories and regrets, and as her thoughts descend into hallucinations, the reader shares the confusion of an elemental struggle to survive.

“The Pure Thing” is an exercise in an obsession: basketball. An ex-con who once played in the NBA joins a farm team and tries to mentor a basketball prodigy who is probably slightly autistic. The detail of basketball terminology is relentless—the plays, the moves—but it puts the reader right there on the court. Intense? You bet.

“The Vanishing Twin” introduces a theme that Davidson alludes to in a couple of other stories: the notion of the vanishing twin. Medically, this is where, in utero, one of two twins never completely develops and is absorbed by the other. Davidson uses this figuratively as a theme for the always complex relationship between brothers. Here it is the story of two 15-year-old twins living in a juvenile custody facility, one of whom is super smart, but cruel.

The central character in “Friday Night Goon Squad” is a pregnant child-care worker dealing with her own history of multiple miscarriages while trying to help the young son of a pregnant mother who is mentally unbalanced—and pregnant as well.

“Medium Tough” is narrated by a pediatric surgeon who has a peculiar disability: one half of his body is normal, the other is thin—emaciated due to a hormonal condition. The story is steeped in medical terminology as he probes the skulls of his patients. The child-care worker from the previous story is there as well—on the operating table.

In “Firebugs” Cataract City is plagued by a series of arsons. Narrated by a forensic fire examiner, this is almost a dystopian tale, where the arsons seem to expand to reflect the unsettled mood and perhaps even the destiny of the city.

Davidson is a challenging read because he not only presents you with challenging characters, he pulls you in to feel their pain. But if you want pat answers, he is not for you. He leaves you a bit confused, reflecting on what he has written—and perhaps seeing the reflection of your inner-most torments on the page.

Cascade is published by Knopf Canada.

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