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Torontoist Reads: The Fighter by Craig Davidson

2006_11_09davidsonreview.jpgCraig Davidson came out swinging last year with the short story collection Rust and Bone, which featured tales of dog fighting, boxers, porn stars and magicians. Can-lit it was not. Now, just a year later, Davidson has returned with The Fighter, a bloody, darkly funny novel about two young men trying to find their place in the world. Davidson gained national attention for the launch party of his novel, when he stepped inside the ring to box poet Michael Knox. He also writes hardcore horror under the pseudonym Patrick Lestewka. Born in Toronto, he now lives in Iowa City.


The Book
Until this past March, I had gone thirteen years without being in a fight. The last time I had thrown a punch in anger – with the intent to inflict pain on someone else – I was in grade seven, vainly trying to defend a friend. I ended up getting my ass kicked.
Fast forward to March, in the Beach of all places (not exactly the roughest area of town). A group of friends and I were making our way to a party to check out some bands (I believe Henri Faberge and The Adorables were playing, but it’s all a blur) when some drunk prick we passed in the street decided to pick a fight with my friend. We tried to ignore the guy and proceed to said party, but the guy threw a couple of sucker punches at my friend’s head.
I lost it and attacked the guy. We exchanged a few blows – I think I got the better of him – then fell to the ground before being pulled apart. The fight, if you can even call it that, was over in a matter of seconds. But I felt alive. The blood was rushing through my veins. Reading Craig Davidson’s new novel, The Fighter, I kept thinking back to that night in March.
Paul Harris was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but it’s not until he gets the shit kicked out of him while on a date that he begins to question his life. His family runs a winery; Paul drives a luxury car; his future is secure. He’s not a bad guy – far from it – but he’s also never had to work for anything. He’s never had to fight for anything.
After the beating, Paul begins to re-evaluate his life. He turns to weight lifting, then boxing, to fill-in what he feels has been missing in his life. He begins to thrive on the pain, which for him is a masochistic kind of redemption.
Running parallel to Paul’s story is that of Rob Tully, a young boxing prodigy. Rob’s father sees boxing as the vehicle to escape a life of poverty and pushes his son, but Rob, on the other hand, wants out. The two stories run separate until colliding at the book’s climax like cars crashing on a darkened highway.
The writing isn’t as taut or poetic as some of the stories in Davidson’s remarkable debut, Rust and Bone, but reading over the pages again I think he’s done it on purpose. The narrative’s frankness and graphicness are like scars across a pugilist’s face. In bold, straightforward prose, Davidson reminds the reader of the ugliness of fighting, and in turn the ugliness of life. There are some passages even I had trouble stomaching – the Chihuahua scene, in particular – and the book features the most over-the-top sex scene I can recall reading, but for the most part, it never feels forced. Every stop along the way has a purpose, and it never feels like Davidson is simply trying to shock us.
If you think he’s a genre-hack – a title I think he’d like, actually – you are sorely mistaken. Pick up last year’s Journey Prize Stories – that’s right, he’s been nominated for the most prestigious short story prize in the country. Or take a trip down to Iowa City, where he teaches and attends the most prestigious writing school in North America, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Or check out some of his fans – Thom Jones, Bret Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, Clive Barker, Joseph Boyden. The man can write.
When the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award nominees were announced there wasn’t much – if any – outcry that Craig Davidson wasn’t on the list. Maybe there should have been. For two years in a row now, he’s released a book that turns Can-lit on its head.
Davidson is concerned with Today’s Man, as he calls it, and while he wrestles with masculinity and what it means to be a man, the novel isn’t so much about boxing or fighting as with living, or rather, how to live in this world. Davidson looks at feelings of shame, pride, and self-worth, all through the haziness that comes with a black eye.
The Interview
Craig was kind enough to answer some questions from his home in Iowa City while taking a break from marking student papers.
When’s the first time you were ever in a fight? Have you ever had your ass handed to you like Paul at the beginning of the book?
Yeah, a few times actually. Most recently was, I guess, in that publicity fight with Michael Knox. But before that, yes, lots of beatings. I’m not really a good fighter. I don’t actually like hurting people. Most of the time I fought it was because I felt I’d been treated unfairly and didn’t want to stand for it so I fought and afterwards realized that I’d been outmatched and that the person I’d fought knew that from the get-go – like, the stink of a pacifist came off me in waves. Easy target.
Where’d the idea for the book come from?
From a lot of different places, really. My own life, mainly. The confusion and, I don’t know, aimless angst I feel a lot of the time. I’m always trying to figure out why I feel the way I do, why I act the way I do, understand if it’s societally-induced or a matter of my own weird inner impulses. Feeling weak and worrying if I’d ever have the fortitude to go through with utterly bizarre scenarios – would I leap in front of a mugger’s bullet for someone else? Would I sacrifice my own life for another person? – that in all likelihood will never happen. Tough question. And I don’t think I really answered it in the book; just more questions.
It’s only been a year since Rust and Bone came out – that seems like a quick turnaround to write a novel. So what was the writing process like on the book? Were you writing it before Rust and Bone came out?
Sort of at the same time. It was the basic deal a lot of first writers get: short story/novel. I did have the idea and I am a quick writer – my mind’s always tick-tick-ticking – so that’s how come so fast. I can never quite understand these writers who take 7-8 years between books; I couldn’t maintain interest in that topic, those characters, for so long.
The winners of the Giller and the GG are going to be announced soon. Both your books are praised by some heavyweights – Thom Jones, Joseph Boyden, Irvine Welsh – do you ever wonder why you never got nominated? Is it just a case of being too different than regular Can Lit?
I don’t really wonder. I think it’s fairly obvious why I won’t get nominated. I realize it as I’m writing: “Well, I just finished a scene where a teacup Chihuahua gets its head run over / a scene where a porn star’s penis pump explodes / a scene where the main character gets the shit kicked out of him by a whore – guess I better kiss that Giller nomination goodbye.” And I’ve always been a stubborn sonofabitch…y’know, it’s sort of like, I’m going to make a way for myself the way I want to, the way I’m happiest, or else I’m going to die on my shield. I think I could write stuff closer to what I see as the Canadian ideal, or a novel that may be more appealing to prize juries or the typical Canadian reader (whoever that is) but I’d be miserable and feel untrue to myself and writing can be a depressing enough enterprise as it is without that added weight. That’s not to say I think any of the Giller or GG nominees have written what they wrote to get an award: everyone writes what they’re compelled to write and hope it finds an audience.
F.X. Toole, Thom Jones, even Hemingway – what’s the relationship between writers and boxing?
Well, it’s a way to get to the heart of a lot of issues surrounding masculinity. The gyms, the training regimen, the denizens of the sport, the brutality and the odd nobility of it all: there’s a hundred reasons writers are drawn to it, I’d say.
I gotta ask if you regret the controversy that resulted from the boxing match between you and Michael Knox?
Well, I can answer it I guess. I mean, not that many people would know. The controversy was really all me and my big mouth…or my big Internet mouth. Said some things I shouldn’t have – or, I don’t know, said some things I should have phrased more carefully. I can’t and don’t want to rehash it again, but suffice it to say I went off on three people, and in one case – Michael Knox’s – I shouldn’t have. I feel ashamed for that, but we talked and cleared the air. The other two fellows…well, one has been involved with boxing a long time and maybe it was another mistake by me on that front, the things I said. The last guy: no, I stick by what I said. And I’ll say it to his face should we ever meet again. Suffice it to say, it was a weird experience. I’m happy I did it and if I had to do it a dozen more times to get some attention for this book, I would. But yeah, weird.
How’s life in Iowa City – do you find you’re kind of the odd man out considering you write about underground fights and write extreme horror under a pseudonym?
Oh, sure. Same as the CanLit/literary awards idea: most times I’m in a literary crowd, a crowd of writers, I feel like the odd man out. I’d feel much better amongst horror writers, probably, or in the bullpen with a bunch of boxing beat writers smoking stogies and talking with salty language. Or maybe I wouldn’t feel comfortable anywhere. But that’s the thing: I really sort of like being on the outside. Masochistically, I LIKE feeling like an unwanted toad. Makes me feel I’ve got something to prove, and I don’t know how it would affect me to be welcomed into the larger group of writers, one of the literary “crowd.” I might lose the chip on my shoulder – less of a chip than an entire casino, really – and who knows what might happen then? I’d go all soft.
What kind of research did you do when writing The Fighter? Are there actually places like the Barn?
As for places like The Barn – I have no idea. I assume there are. For whatever reason, I want to live in a world where there are. But I got lots of questions like this regarding Rust and Bone, too – Did I ever go to a dogfight main amongst them – and the answer is, no. The Internet supplemented by my own twisted imagination. Though I did do plenty of the things my main character, Paul, does in The Fighter: I did pick grapes, for example, and I did do steroids, and I did train as a boxer, and I have been in fights, etc. Though there are lots of places where, for reasons of my own safety and sanity, I could not travel the same roads Paul does.
Let me go on a bit of a tangent here…..I thought the character of the poet, Darren, was quite important. The whole idea of being a writer, and struggling with the notion that you don’t really contribute anything to society…It reminded me of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated, when the main character talks about being a writer and he says he just wants to do something that he’s not ashamed of. Was Darren a way for you to discuss your feelings of being a writer? What are your feelings? Reading that passage at the party, I kept thinking to my time this summer when I was enrolled in war correspondent training with the military. I was embedded with all these guys who are going over to Afghanistan and I kept thinking to myself I’m just a fucking journalist – what the hell am I doing with my life? Do you ever struggle with those kind of issues?
Yes! Yes! All the time. This is a big point of the book, and you nailed it. Inferiority. Like, what the hell do I do that is so special or so important when stacked up to these other men? Fighting men, factory men, just hard working men with dirt and grease on their hands. What the hell am I doing with my life – EXACTLY! I don’t know if there’s any way around it, Mark; we live our lives, that’s all we can do. Each one of us only gets, what, 50-60 good productive years, years where you’re not too young or too infirm, and the array of endeavours you could pursue during that time is too vast – we just got to pick one or two or however many we can manage and pursue them. But yeah, you’re always looking at those unpursued paths – could that one have made me happier, stronger, more resilient, a better person, etc? No way around it, but yeah, I think about it. You bet.
You write horror under the pseudonym Patrick Lestewka. Did you ever consider not revealing you were him?
Not really. I’m very proud of my horror roots. I mean, listen, I wrote a lot of that stuff in my early 20′s so I’m not terribly proud of the writing, the themes, the unpolished-ness, but I cut my teeth on horror both as a reader and later as a writer, and I’d happily be known as a horror writer. In fact, that’s still sort of how I see myself: this horror writer who’s on a busman’s sojourn in La-La-Literary land, and sooner or later the sojourn’s over, which would be fine by me. In fact, it might be easier on my nerves: I constantly feel like people are expecting something different from me, like when they read my stuff it’s like, “Oh – oh my God!” because they’re expecting something that fits into their parameters of “literary fiction,” whereas if my books had HORROR stamped on the spines I might not have to endure such reactions or have people misguidedly pick up my books thinking they’re something other than what they are.
Instead of being the anti-social, hermit writer, you seem to have a very open relationship with your readers, encouraging them to e-mail you, blogging, etc. What’s the reason for that, and what kind of feedback do you get from your readers? Who seems to be reading your books?
Not enough people. Hahahaha, I kid! Not really. Well, it’s like I said: I can’t count on awards, on the press (unless I agree to get my faced bashed in, apparently), on the Can-literati to help promote or talk about my work. Which is fine, because it’s a case of square peg-round hole and I knew that right off the bat. But I feel that if I do have that open relationship, if I do answer every email I receive, if I blog about my life and my fears and insecurities and just basically open myself up to people, then that is as good as a way as I know how to build a relationship with whoever might come across my books. And I don’t want to be writer anyone’s in awe of – why is anyone in awe of any writer? – but rather this regular schmoe that you can email back and forth with and take the piss out of if you see me at a reading or whatever. Which is really who I am – I am truly unspectacular in every conceivable way. So, I don’t know, build a relationship with people, with my readers, who do me the service of reading my work, which is the best way I know how to communicate myself to other human beings.
What are you working on next?
That, my friend, is a secret. I will say that I have the following phrase taped above my computer monitor: MAKE SOMEONE WANT TO SHOOT YOU FOR WRITING
THIS. That is all I will reveal.

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