Craig Davidson back in the game with Cataract City

The Fighter really ripped it out of me” says author Craig Davidson. His first book a short story collection called Rust and Bone garnered some great reviews and two of the stories were recently adapted into a film of the same name. Despite some great press however his second book The Fighter landed with more of a thud.

So when he began his new novel Cataract City the challenge wasn’t just the task of writing the book but getting back in the game. He worked closely at the novel for two years shaping and editing the prose (he jettisoned a subplot of 40000 words from the final work) into a roughly polished gem. The effort paid off with the novel recently shortlisted for the 2013 Giller Prize.

In the story Duncan and Owen are childhood best friends. They both live in Cataract Falls a rough town (it seems like everyone’s dad works at the Nabisco factory for low wages) near Niagara and the U.S. border. Life would be dismal if it wasn’t for the pleasures of wrestling basketball and the softcore blue movies on late-night TV.

One night the boys’ fathers take them to see their favourite wrestler Bruiser Mahoney in action. Drunk and angry the dads get into a brawl in the parking lot. They don’t notice the boys getting into Mahoney’s van. A promised ride home leads to a trip deep into the wilderness where Duncan and Owen are abandoned in the woods.

That nightmarish and harrowing experience follows them throughout their lives with Owen finding stability as a cop and Duncan being led down a path of crime gambling and bare-knuckle boxing. “I’ve always been fascinated with men who worked their ass off but it wasn’t enough” says Davidson. “They kissed the sun once and spend their rest of their life trying to remember that moment.”

There’s a third character haunting the book as well — Niagara Falls or Cataract City as it’s known by the locals. The junky shops catering to tourists sickly sweet-smelling cookie factories and shady bars are testament to the rough and hardscrabble lives of its inhabitants. It’s not the most flattering image of a city though Davidson says it’s purely imaginary.

“I wouldn’t blame them for being ticked off” he says. “I’m not trying to be unkind. I put my own geography on the city — it’s not true to life.”

The writing of Cataract City was a departure for Davidson whose previous approaches were much more immersive and experiential. This time he reached back towards his childhood memories interviewing friends and searching the Internet for period-specific details. He says he’s done with his punishing methods of the past like learning to box and taking a boatload of steroids in preparation for The Fighter .

“I look back and wonder ‘Did it make a difference?’” he says. “I was single didn’t have a child yet and was willing to wreck my body.”