December 16, 2017

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Hardscrabble scrapper stages a comeback

With his first novel In the Cage, Ontario’s Kevin Hardcastle more than lives up to the promise powerfully demonstrated in Debris, his impressive debut collection of short stories. The novel is a soaring, aching meditation on the physical limits of the human body, including the violence we do to ourselves and how the lives of the underclass are ignored in the larger world.

Daniel, a once-acclaimed but now physically and spiritually defeated mixed martial arts fighter, lives in economically devastated rural eastern Ontario with his wife, Sarah, a care home nurse, and their daughter. An occasional and underemployed welder, Daniel works as an enforcer for Clayton, a small-time hood and a childhood friend of Sarah’s.

Daniel wants out, witnessing Clayton and his unstable gang growing increasingly violent and reckless. He works toward retraining for a legitimate fight and a big payoff while risking permanent physical damage in the ring.

Then it gets complicated.

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With his first novel In the Cage, Ontario’s Kevin Hardcastle more than lives up to the promise powerfully demonstrated in Debris, his impressive debut collection of short stories. The novel is a soaring, aching meditation on the physical limits of the human body, including the violence we do to ourselves and how the lives of the underclass are ignored in the larger world.

Daniel, a once-acclaimed but now physically and spiritually defeated mixed martial arts fighter, lives in economically devastated rural eastern Ontario with his wife, Sarah, a care home nurse, and their daughter. An occasional and underemployed welder, Daniel works as an enforcer for Clayton, a small-time hood and a childhood friend of Sarah’s.

Daniel wants out, witnessing Clayton and his unstable gang growing increasingly violent and reckless. He works toward retraining for a legitimate fight and a big payoff while risking permanent physical damage in the ring.

Then it gets complicated.

The story may sound predictable, but Hardcastle has the ability to turn clichés on their head; where we think the narrative is going explodes time and again into something both surprising and heartbreaking.

Hardcastle avoids sentimentality as his characters make their limited choices; compassion is achieved without ever letting the bad off the hook for their actions, no matter how justified.

The world is the world, and you get along as you must. The author demands moral choices from his characters in seemingly impossible situations in which to make them.

Few books deal with brutality inflicted so willingly upon the body. Hardcastle sustains the violence to flesh and bone — and by extension, the spirit — but he does so with endless variation (or, more precisely, endless tension). It should become tiresome or frustrating, but never does. You become Daniel, and his opponents, as the body endures while edging its way to a defeat or victory, the physical and spiritual exhaustion being the same.

Equally strong is the visceral punch the reader feels of the violence in the committing of crimes, or the revenge taken for certain crimes.

Hardcastle also offers repose, though only for a few moments when measured against the stark life or criminal pressures his characters endure. The unspoken interpersonal connections between characters — like Clayton and Sarah, or Daniel and his daughter — are simply yet profoundly rendered between the lines. They help prepare us for the book’s inevitable conclusion; only death seems to prevail, but there is hope, too, for the survivors.

There are a few missteps. While many flashbacks are written as strongly as the main narrative, they sometimes seem intrusive and not woven completely into the story, appearing almost as tantalizing short stories within the longer form. But we know enough without them for the novel to stand; you don’t want to lose them, but this is a rare instance when Hardcastle goes too far.

On the other hand, the metaphor of a forgotten class in the societal cage where violence may destroy the body and spirit is sustained subtly throughout.

Though still early in this career, Hardcastle shows a mastery of form and storytelling worthy of the attention he has received.

Rory Runnells is a Winnipeg writer.

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