October 22, 2020

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Kevin Hardcastle's debut collection brings strong, cinematic grit

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/11/2015 (1810 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

DEBRIS, the debut collection of 11 short stories by Toronto writer Kevin Hardcastle, has been praised for its take the darker side of contemporary rural life and its unflinching look at the culture of violence and intermittent tenderness in the daily lives of its people.

He’s a rougher version of Craig Davidson, whose Rust and Bone seems distantly echoed in these stories (all to the good, let it said).

The collection’s title implies what’s presented in many of the stories. The debris of lives — from embittered often-criminal parents, to the borderline-criminal loner, to siblings locked in a cycle of revenge and false honour — is at the heart of Hardcastle’s examination of life in extremis.

The body provides the central image of this disintegration — it is for Hardcastle brutalized and fragile. His prose style is spare and cinematic, boldly presenting the idea that though we seek the spirit, it is the trap of physical form that defeats us in that seeking. Flesh might be all we have. Sometimes life isn’t as bad as it could be, but peace only follows pain, and that never quite goes away.

The strengths of the collection are best illustrated in shorter tales. The longer a story, however interesting the immediate detail, the weaker the effect.

Bandits, which relates the struggle of the youngest member of a family of well-organized liquor store thieves, has power but spins its wheels.

Hunted by Coyotes tells the story of members of an energy-scam crew in the new suburbs of a sprawling city on the edge of wilderness. It, too, has strong moments, especially the narrator’s encounters with a parade of possible clients/suckers, but the effect is finally tiring and the conclusion a little pat.

That tendency to wrap up a story, however immediately effective it might be, is a weakness the author doesn’t overcome. Significantly, both the aforementioned stories are in the first person.

It’s hard to explain why, but the best stories seem to need the detachment of the third person. It makes the unspoken of the best stories more powerful, even shattering.

The title story, for example, is a near thriller, with visible elements of cliché shaken up beautifully. An aging, childless farm couple comes to realize the serial-killer son of an equally crazed criminal father is stalking them.

Step by step leads to the wife’s violent encounter with the boy, and his death. She dreams after of the dead girls, "daughters all and none of them hers." The act of survival in shooting the killer is really an act of justice mirrored through the unstated disappointment of her life. Here Hardcastle comes close to a masterpiece.

Almost as strong is Spread Low on the Fields. A son seeks revenge for his father’s death by a resident with dementia in the old man’s retirement home. Though there seems little affection for the dead man from the son, he seeks confrontation first with the "killer," who has no idea he did anything, and eventually with the family.

The act of avenging a father’s death seems pointless to others, especially a sympathetic cop, but the son is adamant. If one doesn’t honour the duty owed by family ties, what is there? The protagonist never says that, and likely couldn’t articulate it, but the unstated, relentless tone of the story lays it out splendidly. There’s no judgment in this world — only the inexorable.

Debris is impressive for any writer, especially for a first collection. Hardcastle reveals few faults and many memorable strengths.

Rory Runnells is the artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights.

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