‘In the Cage’ by Kevin Hardcastle

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Andrew Woodrow-Butcher

This new book from Kevin Hardcastle is a much-anticipated follow-up to his Trillium Award-winning 2016 short-fiction debut, Debris. Written before Debris but published subsequently, In the Cage revisits many of the themes of his other work, bringing us back to Hardcastle’s small-town, working-class, violently masculine world. Though In the Cage is well-crafted and suspenseful, it ultimately fails to satisfy because its propulsive focus on dramatic action overshadows character development, to a fault.

The action revolves around Daniel, once a quite successful Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter who has given up the glamorous roving poverty of the fight circuit to settle into a less adventurous, more numbing poverty with his wife and daughter somewhere in rural Ontario. Hardcastle intersperses glimpses of family backstory with an involving chronicle of Daniel’s everyday: his work as a contractor, his slide into some unsavory and dangerous jobs for a local crime boss, and his discovery of a new MMA gym in town, where he can reclaim some of the visceral excitement of his earlier life.

Unsurprisingly then, Hardcastle’s descriptions of violence, of injury, of bodies ruined by choice, by accident or by design are many and varied. At first, the play-by-play narration of Daniel’s fights is thrilling. And there is a pleasure in wincing through these scenes of bloody sport. But they begin to pale in comparison to the sadism of some of Daniel’s criminal colleagues, and the scenes of outright torture that appear later in the book take over the landscape of its imaginary. In the Cage is structured around the differences between these several types of violence: which ones are bearable, or chosen, which ones are acceptable, or a step too far. And the alternating bouts of adrenaline and serious injury that characterize the life of an MMA fighter, though they may seem traumatic from the outside, emerge as a metaphor for the daily grind of other kinds of subsistence work, where pleasure, pain, excitement and reward rarely balance, and always tip toward decline.

Hardcastle’s prose style is artful, and though his characters are plainspoken, the craft of his writing, his playful and sharp use of language is very much in evidence. In the Cage also showcases the mastery of atmospheric suspense that was so much a part of the success of Debris as well. While the MMA violence operates partly as metaphor, the criminal violence of In the Cage generates the tense tone and high stakes that propel us through this book.

But despite Hardcastle’s clear talents, In the Cage disappoints overall. For all that the scarred, damaged body of his protagonist seems to record his many kinds of struggle, whatever interior life Daniel may have is left to our imagination. Although we see Daniel in shallow conversations with his wife, his colleagues, his daughter, Hardcastle does not provide much of a window into his or their thoughts or motivations. In a shorter piece, this type of omission might work well: a snapshot, a single scene might benefit from such ambiguity. But in the almost 300 pages that hinge on this central figure, we are left without having gotten to know Daniel, and as a result the book at times reads like pantomime. This is only compounded by the lengthy, descriptive passages that detail the MMA fighting. Though at the beginning these provide a wonderfully kinetic entry-point to the action, as the book progresses the catalogue of each successive twist and flexion becomes more plodding than striking. For all that Hardcastle’s dramatic, suspenseful scenario is enjoyable, the ways in which his protagonist and his town are troubled are left largely under-explored.

As in Debris, Hardcastle focuses on hetero-masculinity to a point of notable exclusion. Perhaps as a result of the novel’s concern with action over interiority, the two principal female characters, Sarah and Madelyn – Daniel’s wife and daughter – come across as tired types rather than well-rounded personages. Sarah and Madelyn are both very smart, patient, forgiving characters, but they are sympathetic to the point of bland. MMA is, as far as we know, the only thing that Daniel has an enthusiasm for; we learn that he gave it up because when Madelyn came down with pneumonia, Sarah demanded that he come home and settle down. As tensions mount with his criminal associates, Daniel’s worry for the safety of these two drives his actions and our feelings of suspense; they are eventually touched by the vicious violence that has hung over the whole novel. In the Cage creates a whole world, and in this world women appear within a domestic sphere almost entirely, and function only as limits to, or victims of, male adventure.

High stakes and constant tension should make this book a page-turner. But while it is generally engaging, and leverages many of Hardcastle’s strengths, this novel-length work also amplifies some of the serious shortcomings of his earlier fiction. In the Cage is a grisly story, propelled by violence and fear, and not much else.

Biblioasis | 291 pages | $19.95 | paper | ISBN #978-1771961479

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Andrew Woodrow-Butcher

Andrew Woodrow-Butcher has been a Toronto bookseller for about two decades. He is the Director of Library Services for The Beguiling Books & Art, and one of the organizers of the annual Toronto Comic Arts Festival.