Owen and Duncan are childhood friends who've grown up in picturesque Niagara Falls - known to them by the grittier name Cataract City. As the two know well, there's more to the bordertown than meets the eye: behind the gaudy storefronts and sidewalk vendors, past the hawkers of tourist T-shirts and cheap souvenirs live the real people who scrape together a living by toiling at the Bisk, the local cookie factory. And then there are the truly desperate, those who find themselves drawn to the borderline and a world of dog-racing, bare-knuckle fighting, and nighttime smuggling.
Owen and Duncan think they are different: both dream of escape, a longing made more urgent by a near-death incident in childhood that sealed their bond. But in adulthood their paths diverge, and as Duncan, the less privileged, falls deep into the town's underworld, he and Owen become reluctant adversaries at opposite ends of the law. At stake is not only survival and escape, but a lifelong friendship that can only be broken at an unthinkable price.
©2013 Craig Davidson (P)2014 Recorded Books
The first quarter of this novel is a terrific adventure story, as two 12-years-old boys find themselves lost in the Canadian woods, trying to find their way home before starvation, illness or wild animals stop them. The result is revealed at the start of the novel—they make it—and for the rest of the novel the two men, grown, continue to struggle for their place in the world. The author sees their home, Niagara Falls, Ontario—Cataract City—as a snake pit that destroys its working poor through bitter feuds, petty crime and the lack of decent-paying jobs. The two men are fighters, and they do their best to preserve their honor and dignity despite one adverse turn after another. Brutal competition is an ongoing theme in the novel, whether through wrestling, boxing or dog races. Craig Davidson seems to revel in the grisliest details, rarely resisting the urge to describe the blood and gore that ooze throughout.
The portrayal of Niagara Falls was less persuasive than the lives of the characters. I chose this book because I grew up in nearby Buffalo, but I didn’t recognize this version of the city. Those thundering, magnificent Falls are there, but apart from occasional references to the mist and noise, they don’t matter much. The tale could have taken place in any fading industrial town. The portrayal of native Americans was also problematic. Generally they were bad guys, despite having fewer opportunities and probably less education than the main characters. And the subplot in which both men fall in love with Edwina was a little hackneyed.
But overall, this was an absorbing book, a sympathetic portrait of good men making the best of a bad deal in life. Craig Davidson is an excellent writer, with lots of strong images in the book. The two narrators, one for each of the main characters, did a competent job, speaking plainly and clearly.
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