I had an old cellphone that would autocorrect "bless your heart" to "bless your cage" for some reason. Seemingly free from the pejorative connotations of its source idiom, this accidental acknowledgement of the containers of body or circumstance that we either live with or in spite of kind of reminded me of the wave between Jeep owners. We're all, to a certain extent, for better or worse, stuck with what we've got. I'd forgotten all about this lovely fart of technology until the end Kevin Hardcastle's debut novel, In the Cage.
The literal cage here encloses the MMA fights of our protagonist, Daniel. A fighter for whom effective brutality seems to come naturally, Daniel makes his way as a peripatetic pugilist. A combination of injury and fatherhood directs him towards the life of a journeyman and back to the economically depressed Northern town of his childhood. And here the figurative cages begin to reveal themselves -- and then the cages within the cages within the cages. Struggling to support his family, Daniel moonlights as muscle for Clayton, a local gangster he's known since childhood.
When another seeming coincidence fundamentally threatens his livelihood, Daniel's options really narrow; his cage shrinks. All at once, Daniel's truck is stolen and relieved of its welding rig and Clayton makes an unprecedentedly violent territory grab. At odds with the unconscionable means to Clayton's new end, Daniel has to choose between putting his family in danger either personally or economically.
What's remarkable about Hardcastle's novel is no one sulks about their cages. Everyone tries to do the best with what they've been given, spending little to no time bemoaning what they've been denied. Hardcastle's laconic, sometimes stoic prose will likely always get attributed to rural tough guy brooding, but he doesn't write romanticized brawling bumpkins. Rather, his cast is composed of smart, hardworking, devoted people whose intelligence, ethic, and honour are both defined by and in spite of their surroundings. If they don't say much, it's because there's not much to say -- saying has a way of getting in the way of doing.
In the Cage is usually sad and often brutal, but those aren't the book's defining characteristics. More than Hardcastle's book is about damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't cages, it's a story of love and perseverance. Harcastle might seem to be one of the grittier new voices in CanLit, but he's also one of the most sentimental. The combination of and conversations between the two extremes keep him from ever being too much of one or the other. Bless his cage.