Kevin Hardcastle.  In the Cage.  Biblioasis. $19.95, 310 pp., ISBN: 978-1771961479

Kevin Hardcastle. In the Cage. Biblioasis. $19.95, 310 pp., ISBN: 978-1771961479

A Review of Kevin Hardcastle's In the Cage

Review by Sally Cooper

Kevin Hardcastle has trained in various Martial Arts such as Karate, Muay Thai and Boxing. He is the author of the story collection, Debris, which won the 2016 Trillium and ReLit Awards. In his first novel, In the Cage, Hardcastle crafts a grueling portrait of the survival efforts of Daniel, a MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighter, with the attention to detail inherent to any trade performed by a skilled professional.

In the Cage weaves Daniel’s attempts to extricate himself from criminal elements and make an honest living while facing increasing debt and difficulty. Set in an unnamed rural community in Ontario, near a First Nation, In the Cage, strives to provide an immersive experience of the challenges of living in a climate of decreasing opportunity.

Daniel is a relentlessly skilled fighter, his talents valued by a local drug gang in need of an enforcer. Yet when Daniel brings the ethics of the ring to his criminal work, the gang members relieve him of any hope that the others will adhere to his code, so he soon leaves them behind.

Daniel’s efforts to take on legitimate work in construction provide diminishing returns, leading him to sniff out a local gym where he trains in the afternoons. When the work dries up in winter, Daniel, who lacks seniority, is laid off.  After a long, fruitless job search, he determines to provide for his family using his skills in the ring alone.

Hardcastle’s sentences land like bricks. His language approaches the poetic when Daniel fights, whether in training or in a publicized fight: “More meat on him than Daniel had seen the coach carry before. Underneath it all his bones were yet like iron.” In the ring, the men are hyper-aware of each other’s physicality, of where their bodies hold strength, of their potential as an opponent. Hardcastle uses language both specific and plain, calling on syntax to echo the body’s rhythms in the ring. The language makes real the force of engagement while withholding any glory beyond that of a fight well-fought.

Of note, too, is how Hardcastle employs archaic and blended words, in the vein of Cormac McCarthy, another chronicler of rural savagery in a land of few options. Even ordinary moments, Hardcastle renders solemn: “Daniel showered and he stood in the bedroom for some time before he dropped the towel and let the air at his nethers.” While his choice of words can have a distancing effect, Hardcastle is also universalizing the characters’ lives, adding an epic element to their struggles, and malice to those who, like Tarbell, menace outside of a code, whose violence exceeds all efforts of those who wish to control it or wield it as a tool.

Hardcastle writes of a rural existence that other writers caricature or wash over with humour or sentimentality. Daniel and Sarah face a hard grind as they struggle to move out from under their debts while keeping it honest. Forces from without (the gangs striving to manipulate Daniel back into their fold) and from within (the scars of a life underpinned by violence and few options) make the moments of love between the couple and shared with their daughter all the more tender.  The dance Daniel and Sarah perform as they shape their daily existence is every bit as intricate and caringly described as the fighters’ encounters in the cage.

While presented mainly from Daniel’s perspective, In the Cage does roam into others’ points of view, such as those of Sarah and local gangsters, Clayton and Wallace. Hardcastle employs these perspective shifts intuitively while spending the bulk of his time with Daniel. Indeed, it is a feat that Hardcastle so convincingly takes the reader inside this damaged, profound character. Not surprisingly, Daniel doles his words out sparingly, yet his inner life sings off the page, especially in his most ferocious, least outwardly verbal moments: “Someone broke a full beer bottle over Daniel’s head and he did not feel it and inside of a minute there were six men down and all but one were bleeding from the mouth or nose or eyes. All but one, who lay facedown over an upturned table, his shoulderjoint twisted out of the socket so that the whole arm hung stretched and simian at his side.”

In the Cage takes time to build, lingering on Daniel’s training and not skimping on the fights. Yet once it gains momentum, it holds steady, leading to a brutal climax too exciting to put down. Uncommon in its approach to violence and love, In the Cage is a brawny debut novel that stares down the hardships of the rural poor.