Kevin Hardcastle’s debut novel demonstrates that the violent depredations dramatized in the fiction of Cormac McCarthy are not confined to the Texas–Mexico border: rural Canada works just fine as a locale. In the Cage finds its protagonist, Daniel, stoically trying to eke out an existence for himself, his wife, Sarah, who works the night shift at the local old folks’ home, and their 11-year-old daughter. Daniel was once a fearsome mixed-martial-arts cage fighter, but a career-ending injury has reduced him to working half-days as a welder and supplementing his income as muscle for a local drug kingpin and his crew, which not incidentally includes the drug lord’s violent and sullen nephew, Tarbell.
In sparse, understated prose, Hardcastle depicts Daniel’s slide into the murkier areas of his conscience and bloodier areas of work. After his job affords him a close-up brush with murder, Daniel finds it hard to sleep and dulls the psychic pain with bottle after bottle of beer. Following a series of setbacks, and much to his wife’s chagrin, Daniel embarks on an unlikely comeback in the MMA cage.
In a landscape dominated by weed, beer, oxycontin, bikers, and guns, violence is as inevitable as another round of whiskies at the bar. But rather than employ a commonplace, Tarantinoesque approach juxtaposing the violence with humour or camp, Hardcastle provides no adornments. His economical writing resembles dispatches from a war zone: “They were not five feet out into the lot before the shotgun bellowed. Daniel sunk to his haunches and went sideways toward the building. Streak of muzzle-fire against the black. Dubeau spun forty-five degrees and as he turned there were pieces of him flung out in the open air.”
Hardcastle spends rather too much time on Daniel’s strenuous MMA training sessions and not enough on backstory. There is focus and energy in Daniel’s quiet rage, but there are only passing allusions to the relationship with his father that helped put him on the road to the socioeconomic underclass. When Tarbell comes after Sarah, it sets the stage for Daniel’s revenge and an anticipated conflagration at the climax. In Hardcastle’s rugged universe, however, there are no winners, and the cage of the mind proves much more difficult to navigate than the one in which the professional fighters ply their trade.