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Craig Davidson – Rust and Bone

Beating CanLit to a Bloody Pulp

Craig Davidson - Rust & Bone When critics and reviewers try to define our country’s literary and cultural identity, there are a few adjectives that never spring up. To wit: “shocking,” “lurid,” “bizarre,” “sensational,” and “visceral.” Craig Davidson’s fiction tends to be set in places such as St. Catharines or Welland, Ontario, but all of these terms can be favourably applied to his work. Like a gleeful bull in the china shop of staid and worthy Can Lit, Davidson is defining his own literary identity by shattering conventions.

The Toronto-born author’s debut collection of short stories, Rust and Bone (Penguin), features tales with such premises as a theme park performer whose leg is bitten off by a killer whale and who spends his time sabotaging self-help groups; a couple who despair of their infertility as they train pit bulls to fight to their deaths in illegal bouts; a sex addict whose exploits are unmentionable in a family paper, and a couple of boxers who are down on their luck but seeking redemption.

In person, Davidson does conform to at least one Canadian stereotype: he’s unfailingly polite. “If you want to,” he offers, “go ahead and say, ‘I talked to him, and he seemed like a real creep and a jerk.’” This may make for good copy, but it’s simply untrue; he comes across as unpretentious and eager to put everyone around him at ease. As the interview moves from a downtown Toronto bar and grill to Florida Jack’s Boxing Club, home of the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame, he’s drawn to the autographs of sports writers and is keen to talk with the club’s more grizzled veterans about training. With his imposing frame, impressive jaw and tattoo circling his arm, Davidson gives off the aura of a real man’s man. On the other hand, standing in the ring to have his photo taken, surrounded by posters of champions like Tyson and Ali, he wryly recalls taking a bad beating from a 16-year-old while taking up boxing last year to research the stories in Rust and Bone and his upcoming novel, In the Pit.

On his blog at www.penguinblogs.ca/davidson, he’s started writing a series of “Various Beatings I Have Taken.” “It’s not that I ever go to start a fight,” he explains, “but usually I don’t back down; I just pick the wrong people to tussle with, and I get a fucking shellacking for my troubles.”

Davidson, whose prose displays the urgency of good sports writing, sees the very process of measuring oneself up physically against an opponent as a defining one; often his characters learn about themselves in extreme situations. The 30-year-old writer says of his generation, “we haven’t had a lot of tests in our lives. Life is easier in a lot of ways; there are no necessary physical demands placed upon you, and your courage and nobility aren’t necessarily tested in the more traditional ways that you’re used to reading about and watching. I have one older character [in In the Pit] ask a younger one, ‘How do you even know you’re men?’ Sometimes that does run through my head. There’s just a sense of lack, or wondering, if you ever had your back up against the wall, would you do the right thing?”

Davidson feels he’s learned from the fights he’s occasionally gotten into; in keeping with the doctrine of “write what you know,” he’s peppered his fiction with violent confrontation. And while he may occasionally use poetic language in doing so, he’s determined to distance himself from stereotypical Can Lit, which he finds often “beautifully written” but “boring and self-serving … the emotional thrust of it leaves me cold.” He remembers trying to break into the Canadian small-press fiction scene in his early twenties: “Here I was sending out my dog-fighting stories and my Marineland whale amputation stories, and of course I was getting the not-at-all surprising rejections.” He did, however, manage to find publication for genre stories in horror fiction journals, and last year, under the pseudonym Patrick Lestewka, he published the horror novel The Preserve in the U.S., with the quaintly named Necro Publications.

Davidson’s more determinedly literary endeavours balance their depiction of spattering bodily fluids with anarchic humour operates at the savage end of satire, like that of South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. One incident in particular, in the story “Friction,” involving a malfunctioning prosthetic device (and again unmentionable in a family newspaper) is outrageously funny. Davidson remembers writing the scene, “sitting behind my computer and just cackling like an idiot to myself and just hoping that someone would also find it funny,” although he admits, “a lot of people have read it and just thought, ‘Well, that’s just gross.’”

Nonetheless, Davidson has determined that at his readings from now on, he will choose the most potentially controversial passages in his book — partially out of a desire not to misrepresent the material, and partially in homage to Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, who prides himself on the number of people who have fainted at his readings. At the International Festival of Authors, this should make him a sensation.

“People in Toronto can expect I’ll come out guns a-blazing,” he affirms. “I’m going to pick either the dog-fighting story or the sex addict story, and just see what happens. Unless if someone pulls out a revolver and shoots me, it can’t end that badly.”

— Originally appeared in The National Post, Oct. 27, 2005

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