by Kevin Hardcastle
Once a successful mixed-martial arts fighter, an injury leaves Daniel unable to fight. Left with little options in a rural Canada struggling with widespread joblessness, he starts working as hired muscle for small-time drug deals, but the work’s getting bloodier and the crooks are getting more bloodthirsty. In the Cage explores Daniel’s quest for a better, honest life for his family and the desperation that keeps pulling him back to a life of crime.
The book that immediately came to mind when I read the synopsis for In the Cage was Andrew Sullivan’s Waste, and there’s probably a good reason for that. (Beyond the fact that people consistently mistake the two authors, of course.) Both portray small town crime and poverty and both involve sporadic, gritty violence, but the big thing that differentiates, and elevates, Hardcastle’s work is the building tension and effective pacing. Most of the story is a quiet look at Daniel’s home life, and we slowly get a great sense of who he is, along with those close to him, in a way that comes across as sincere and heartfelt. But the author peppers in consistent reminders of the dangers lurking just out of view, gradually closing in, that gives the work a foreboding nature. And I’d like to say that both effects create a mix that results in a spectacular conclusion, but that’s the only point where the author lost me. This was actually what very much put me in mind with Michael Christie’s If I Fall, If I Die, which was another book I quite enjoyed, but whose narrative suffered by the end because of this weird, unreal conclusion that chucked out all the effective pacing that got us to that point. While I may be far off the mark, I assume this happens with the best of intentions: The author wants the payoff to be worth it. And this seems like a legitimate concern. I complained at the end of Waste because I didn’t get a payoff I found satisfying, and, here, the author went through great lengths to try and make things action-packed, cinematic, and exciting. However, in doing so, Hardcastle kills what was previously a brilliant portrayal of a barren, unforgiving world that felt so, so real.
So, I’m basically trying to say that In the Cage is good, but I really thought it could have been great.