With his debut story collection, Toronto writer Kevin Hardcastle introduces readers to a world that may appear as foreign as any imagined science-fiction or fantasy milieu. That he renders this world so strongly – simultaneously immersive and alienating – is just one of the strengths of this impressive work.
The stories in Debris take place, mainly, in largely anonymous rural settings: farms and forests, gravel pits and small towns. In Hardcastle’s hands, these locales form a world of desperation, violence, poverty, and helplessness, populated by thieves and police officers, door-to-door salesmen and factory workers. Hardcastle’s skill as a storyteller lies in never treating the setting or the characters as generic types. Each story is a fully realized world – as rich as it is bleak, the characters powerfully and carefuly drawn.
In “Old Man Marchuk,” for example, a young RCMP officer named Hoye, newly deployed to a tiny Alberta detachment, arrests the eponymous character after the old man chases down and shoots two men. “You shot those men?” “They were robbin’ me.” “Your farm is fuckin’ three miles thataway.” The arrest galvanizes the town, with Hoye’s actions disturbing the long-held tolerance for the law-breaking Marchuk family, and pitting locals against outsiders.
But it’s not quite that simple. In Hardcastle’s stories, nothing ever is.
The focus shifts to the other side of the law in “Bandits,” as Hardcastle follows the ebbing dynamics among a criminal family that specializes in snowmobiling over frozen lakes to steal liquor from package stores after hours. While the criminality – and the fates of the family members – forms the spine of the story, its heart is in the delicate interpersonal details threaded through the narrative, moments so understated they would be easy to miss, their import becoming clear only as the story progresses.
For a writer who seems to specialize in oversized gestures – bar fights, stabbings, shootings, vandalism, robberies, furious sex – Hardcastle’s greatest strength is the subtlety of his storytelling. The parsed obliqueness of the pieces in Debris, and the surface taciturnity of the characters, reads like a blend of Raymond Carver and Elmore Leonard. Thankfully, Hardcastle also captures the depth of both writers: dialogue gracefully loaded with subtext, glances rich in significance, the deceptively simple nature of the action. These are stories that demand close readings, with attention paid to every word, every gesture.
These are also stories that benefit from isolation. While the temptation to read Debris from cover to cover is understandable, the stories are better served by slower consumption. The oppressiveness of the individual narratives and the bleak worldview extended throughout the whole of the collection may become off-putting. Better to space them out, to allow each story to linger and build in the mind. Debris is a collection to savour.