Saturday, December 3, 2016

Review: "The Fighter" by Craig Davidson

With his novel The Fighter, his first one published, Canadian author Craig Davidson establishes himself as one of today’s most interesting and compelling literary voices. Coming from a long line of masculine and trangressive authors as varied as Ernest Hemingway and Hubert Selby Jr. all the way to Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis, I have yet to come across an author who writes about the limits of toughness, manliness and the human body in ways that are equally repulsive and off-putting but also revelatory and emotionally complex. His first book, the short story collection Rust and Bone, later made into a movie, expresses these themes of the bloody human heart in a variety of capacities such as dog fighting, whale training and of course, boxing, or fighting in general, which, along with dog fighting, are the focus of his brilliant novel Cataract City. With this novel, published in 2007, Davidson just focuses on boxing and some of the mythic and tragic elements that embody the sport and those who take it up. It is hard to me to read a story or a novel about boxing and not think of the great short story writer Thom Jones, my pick for America’s most underrated writer, who sadly, as I just found out in the midst of writing this review, passed away in mid-October. But while this novel, and the title story of Rust and Bone, share the sadness and fatalism of Jones’ stories, this novel is meaner, more vicious and quite a lot bloodier. The book opens inside the mind of an unnamed fighter in a foreign land listing off the number ailments he has gotten from fighting, from the scars on his body to the missing teeth. We will find out which of the two main characters this is by the end. After such a graphic prologue we are introduced to our first main character Paul Harris. The son of rich parents who own a winery in Canada, Paul is shocked out of his comfortable life after a slight from a stranger causes him to get beat up. He begins to question himself, his worth and his importance in life, and this leads down a dark path that involves bodybuilding, steroid abuse and eventually an illegal boxing club across the border known as the Barn. Meanwhile, the young, fresh faced Rob Tully, the pride of his small town, whose boxing skills are seen by his father Reuben as a way out of their poverty-stricken existence, struggles with his place in the world and the limited options for the future. Soon, these two warriors will cross paths in the most aggressive and brutal ways possible. Davidson seems to relish the ways in which he accurately and graphically describes what happens to the human body, whether that is the ways the skin on your ass can harden when you inject steroids or the painful procedure Paul gets so his nose won’t bleed. But even with the violence, I was moved by the somber tone throughout, mostly from Rob’s uncle, the washed up boxer Tommy and Paul’s helpless parents, who watch his transformation with horror and more than a little regret. There are so many memorable scenes, some of which come in the form of out of left field hallucinations, but I won’t spoil them here. This is a heart stopping, plasma soaked account of manhood gone berserk. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is for anyone looking for great fiction.

Rating: 5/5

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