There is a familiar pattern to intergenerational politics. The young folk look at their parents and see nothing but bad choices and misguided values. They vow to do things better, to avoid all the old pitfalls. But in eschewing the safe and beaten track, they wander into a whole new world of troubles. If they’re lucky, they’ll survive to create a fresh legacy for their own children to rebel against. If not – well, at least the crocodiles won’t go hungry.
Craig Davidson is one of the lucky ones, though just by a hair. His debut collection of stories pointedly rebels against the work of his CanLit elders. But in its quest for originality, the book gets itself into some major technical trouble. Yet somehow, through sheer chutzpah, it manages to survive its ordeals, emerging as a (qualified) success. Oh, to be so young and fearless.
Each story in Rust and Bone is based around either a macho sport or a wacky job. Boxing, basketball, dog fighting, stage magic, and, yes, porn all inspire treatment in the collection. Oddly mechanical, the approach could easily have been disastrous if it weren’t for the sheer weirdness of the pieces themselves.
Granted, a few are standard-issue sports genre numbers. In the predictable “The Rifleman,” a gifted young athlete quits basketball after his overbearing dad gets in his face once too often. But most are closer to “Rocket Ride,” the freakish tale of a Marineland aquanaut mutilated by a disgruntled killer whale. My favourite story in the collection is “On Sleepless Roads,” which finds a repo man talked into helping a bankrupt TV producer “direct” a cast of live animals – frog, mouse, hamster, etc. – in a remake of On the Riverbank, the old kids’ show starring Hammy Hamster and GP the guinea pig.
There are a few other Canadian writers who’ve done the warped urban gothic thing in recent years – early Barbara Gowdy comes to mind, or, more recently, Charlotte Gill – but even Gowdy is far more restrained than Davidson in terms of prose and technique. Whatever one may make of Davidson’s subject matter, it is hard not to credit the author with going to some very dark places.
Davidson’s language is unusually fierce, a pungent contemporary male vernacular that could not be farther from the standard Canadian lyrical voice: “Let me tell you, the pure shooter’s a dying breed. We’re talking pretty much extinct: think snow leopard, Komodo dragon, manatee. The dunk shot more or less killed the pure shooter: nowadays everyone wants to be a rim-rocker, shatter the backboard to make the nightly highlight reel.”
Unfortunately, along with the relative originality of approach come those aforementioned pitfalls. There are structural problems in several of the pieces: expository flashbacks slammed into the middle of scenes with all the subtlety of a knee to the groin, and endings that don’t quite make sense of the anarchy they unfold from.
Like a Shakespearean actor whose accent keeps slipping, Davidson sometimes loses control of his characters’ vernacular. “Sun limns the contours of her black snout, thin golden traceries like the veins on a leaf,” a crazed dog-fighting enthusiast says at one point of his favourite animal. The character is smart, well read even, but he’s hardly a poetry professor. Too often, Rust and Bone feels more like a promising first or second draft than a finished work.
But despite its problems, the book does manage – by a hair, at times – to come out a winner. The boxing metaphor may be painfully obvious, but appropriate: the young kid’s already got the talent and the fire to knock out many an old palooka, but he’s going to have to go back to the gym and put in some hard, dreary technical workouts before he’s ready to even think about a title run.