- The Fighter
- Soho Press, 256 pp.
James Ellroy, Cormac McCarthy and William T. Vollmann have some new company hanging out on their dark, rough, violent block. He’s Craig Davidson and here’s how he tells what he feels and sees:
Blind in one eye: those damn lye fights. My upper incisors driven through my gums, half embedded in soft pallet. Cauliflower ears – jug ears, my old trainer would’ve said – and my hearing cuts in and out like a radio on the fritz; when it goes I’ll smack the side of my head, the way you would a finicky TV to get the picture back. A raised line runs from the base of my scalp to a point between my eyebrows; my skull was split open on the concrete of an empty oil refinery. An unlicensed medic – there’s no other kind around here – wrapped a leather belt around my head to keep the split halves together…They say a man’s body is a map of his existence.
And that’s from only the second page of the prologue of Davidson’s brutally graphic first novel The Fighter. The author narrates the wild ride of Paul Harris and Rob Tulley as they bash, batter and bleed there way through the viciously dark world of fighting. Not boxing. That’s a sport with rules and padded gloves. Fighting is a no rules, win anyway you can nightmare scene peopled by boxers on the out, men who love to punish and kill others and those with little or no hope for redemption.
Everything has been handed to Paul Harris on a silver platter. He’s the son of a wealthy southern Ontario winery owner. But following a vicious beating in and outside of his local upscale club, he descends into the realm of hardcore bodybuilders, steroids and boxing gyms, seeking to become a something he isn’t, self-sculpted, self-defined. Rob Tully, a working-class teenager from upstate New York, is a natural boxer from a family that lives the pursuit, boxing runs in their veins. He trains with his father and uncle, who believe that his pugilistic skills can change their lives. But he struggles under the weight of their expectations, fearing his own ability to inflict pain, often pulling punches or losing fights intentionally. The disparate paths of Harris and Tully lead to an underground bare-knuckle fight venue where men brawl for hard cash. Here anything goes. Death, permanent brain damage, ruined bodies – all part of the show beneath a violent backdrop of animality and rage.
Craig Davidson was born in Toronto and now lives in Iowa City. His short story collection, Rust and Bone, has been published in the United States, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. His stories have been published in Fiddlehead, Event, Prairie Fire, and sub-TERRAIN. His work has been compared to Thom Jones in the story collection The Pugilist at Rest. Here Davidson previews the violence and mayhem he portrays in The Fighter with eight short stories on men who live for the high adrenalin, crazed life – boxers, basketball players, and gamblers. In the title story, a boxer chants as in a litany the names of the 27 bones that make up the human hand, all of which he has broken in the course of a career that now sees him fighting in bottom-level gutter venues. And like in The Fighter Davidson shows his character experiencing the beauty of boxing even as he admits that his fights are a matter of survival and atonement for past sins. In “A Mean Utility,” ad executive James Paris, frustrated by his and his wife’s attempts to conceive, displaces his paternal feelings onto his pit bull, Matilda. He overmatches her with a nasty rottweiler, then undergoes a change of heart, entering the battle to save his dog, losing a hunk of his leg while doing so. In “Rocket Ride,” a young man who loses his leg to the orca he performs with in a marine park show tries to rebuild his life, in part by attending meetings of the Unlimbited Potential support group, which is full of substance-abusing amputees who wonder if karma’s to blame for their plights.
One of Davidson’s talents as a story teller is his natural ability to juxtapose stellar, energetic descriptions of physical confrontation with subtle, quirky explorations of human motivation, and he does this smoothly, seamlessly. The only weakness, a minor one, is his relying on dreamscapes to expand on the internal dialogues, dilemmas and terrors of the characters. A little dreamland jive goes a long way. Better to work this information into a real time segment of the narrative.
And this guy’s work is not for the squeamish or faint of heart. Gore, unrestrained violence and lots of graphic descriptions of physical damage permeate Davidson’s writing.
The first punch was tentative…The next punch was harder; the post vibrating like a tuning fork. Wire tore skin…The crisp tok tok tok on wood gave way to mushier, meatier sounds until at some point his right hand…crumpled, delicate jigsaw bones shattering, and though the pain left him gagging he did not stop. His hands became a blur of ever-expanding and ever-darkening red, blood in the air, blood and skin stuck to the post and the bones of his left hand splintering with a tensile shriek and bone visible now, glistening shards jutting through sheared flesh…
Clearly Davidson is not for everybody despite his brilliance and natural ability with language. But no new writer has grabbed my attention like this since I read an excerpt of The Rifles by Vollmann in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993.
I read this book in one take late at night much like I did McCarthy’s The Road. Both novels left me at once empty of emotion and satiated with the bleakness and violence of the human condition. Powerful books by fine writers. I got up, turned on my computer and ordered Davidson’s Rust and Bone.