Even at this late in the year, I have not read anything that packs the punch of Craig Davidson’s novel Cataract City. It is a vibrant creative masterpiece of the kind of stories Thom Jones and Jim Thompson would write. It is a brutal world, and that is putting it lightly. Gallons of blood are split, bones are broken and spirits are crushed throughout this small town epic, but it not only written in a way that is poetic and eloquent, which I have found in most novels like this, with the violence and depravity sounding not like inferior speech, but as an almost operatic expression of human feeling, but it is also endlessly creative in the many ways its two central characters journey from boyhood into adulthood, and from their personal nightmares into something that look something like a redemption, at least for the people who find themselves stuck in the vice grip of Cataract City. This book goes to so many different places, some dark, some heartwarming, that it left me awestruck that Davidson, with such skill and precision, connects these disparate dots in a way that doesn’t give the reader any kind of whiplash, and little protest as to whether or not that was exactly how things should have ended up. Besides that, the book has many scenes of intense violence that made me think of Frank Bill’s Donnybrook. You don’t simply read about the injuries, you hear the crack of cartilage, and feel the many cuts opening up on the human body that almost feels transformative. The novel focuses on two unfortunate boys who find themselves stuck in Cataract City, a place where jealous and hateful people snuff out dreams of idealistic people. They are Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs. They have slightly different upbringings, but it isn’t so much that people notice. They bond over a love of wrestling, leading to a scene in a forest in the outskirts of town that is one of the most brilliant pieces of writing I have had the pleasure of coming across, with the direction Davidson takes both audacious and moving. Eventually, they each grow up, Duncan becoming involved with many illegal dealings, such as dogfighting, and bare-knuckle boxing, with one of the most shady and hateable antagonists in recent memory, leading to him going to jail for eight years, while Owen becomes an embittered ex-athlete who is now a cop with little to do in such a draining town. When Duncan gets out of jail, he has big plans that he wants Owen’s help with. Without spoiling too much, the book somehow circles back on itself in the end, when the two broken men at the center of this whirlwind of a story find themselves in pieces, both physically and spiritually, and desperately trying to put themselves back together. There are some scenes in this story that even I had a hard time reading, especially during both the dig and human fight scenes, but there is something primal and deep going on in this book, with Davidson tapping into questions of masculinity, pride and desperation unlike any other writer working today. Approach this book with an open mind, an open heart and an empty stomach.