I find myself frequently on the lookout for books, Canadian books in particular, that deal explicitly with issues of masculinity. Given all the controversy in the last several years over things like the ratio of male to female prize winners and bylines in magazines (not something I put a huge amount of stock in, but whatever), you’d think books like that would be pretty easy to find. It turns out they aren’t. Rust and Bone isn’t really about masculinity, of course. It looks like it is, what with the emphasis on various blood sports and failed or failing relationships (no matter how stoic the man, no matter how rough-and-tumble, we can each of us be swiftly and thoroughly demolished by a woman). This book is about anatomy.
The titular story opens with a fascinatingly detailed description of the bones of the hand that leads into an equally detailed and fascinating description of how a boxer’s body, his hands in particular, impact the finer points of his career. And Davidson goes from there, taking apart the mistakes and the reasons behind this particular boxer’s career. The anatomy of the hand becomes the anatomy of boxing becomes the anatomy of this boxer and his grief. It’s sweaty and violent and grim, but it’s also a heartbreaking account of a man unforgiven by the world and unable to forgive himself.
“A Mean Utility” was so visceral a dissection of dog fighting that I had difficulty finishing it. I quite literally squirmed in my chair and even felt a little bit ill. The most disturbing thing about this story is how dispassionate Davidson’s writing is; his narrator comes down neither for or against the sport or how the protagonists raise their animals. He doesn’t have to; the bare facts (a tricky concept in fiction, but we’ll pretend for the moment that it isn’t) allow the sport to damn itself.
The only story that doesn’t seem to conform to the pattern (and I say doesn’t seem to, because in some ways it actually does) is the final piece in the book, “The Apprentice’s Guide to Modern Magic.” There’s no rough-and-tumble manliness in this piece, and only velvet-draped self-destruction as Davidson delineates a family putting itself back together after having to face two traumatic events, one long in the past and one still fresh and bloody, and it’s punctuated by wonderful excerpts from a book that doesn’t exist, describing how to accomplish classic conjuring tricks. It’s the sort of story for which critics dust off words like “poignant” when they probably mean sentimental. It was nice, for the kind of thing that it was (I like to pretend otherwise, but hey, I’m kind of a sentimental guy), but unfortunately it felt weak and parochial next to the rest of the book.
I suppose one of the easiest things to do would be to compare Davidson to Chuck Palahniuk, but that’s not really fair. Chuck’s work can be fun, but he’s more or less a one trick pony, and even though the trick is a pretty good one, it’s only really impressive the first time (that’s Fight Club, for those of you keeping score at home). In this first collection (it is his first collection, right?) Davidson displays more range than Palahniuk has over his entire career, not only shocking us as hard—or even harder—but also displaying tremendous sensitivity and control.
Rust and Bone was my twelfth selection for the Second Canadian Book Challenge. Next up is Cockroach, by Rawi Hage.