Reviewed by Adrick Brock
In Debris, the title story in Kevin Hardcastle’s first published collection, an old woman trudges through snowy fields with a rifle slung over her shoulder, hunting a local killer. Emily, the protagonist, seems to be the only person capable of defending the community. The police (who appear in many of the stories in Debris) are ineffectual, and Emily’s husband, Bob, is incapacitated on the couch with boils. The violence outside their home offers a stark counterpoint to tender moments between the old couple. When a dead woman has been discovered in their pool, for instance, and the killer reappears on their property, they still manage to hold one another’s hand and to chuckle about Bob’s late night erection, which he ascribes to “one a’ them pills.” (210) Hardcastle is intent on showing us the polarity of life in small-town Canada, at once beautiful, dangerous and bizarre.
Violence is the engine in almost all of the stories. In the opener, “Old Man Marchuk”, a small-town police officer is forced to take up a rifle to defend his home from the cronies of the local criminal he’s recently arrested. “The Shape of a Sitting Man” pits the protagonist against a gang of thugs who, prior to the story’s beginning, carried out a debilitating attack on the man’s brother. In “Bandits”, one of the lengthier stories in Debris, a young man named Charlie joins the ranks of his father and uncles, who rove the frozen lakes of the Muskokas on bobsleds and break into liquor stores late at night. Luck never seems to be on the side of Hardcastle’s characters, and the tragic ending of “Bandits” (spoiler alert) reads with the elegiac gusto of a Bruce Springsteen ballad, where the criminals are never as bad as you think, and the cops are never as good.
Debris is at turns cold and sinister in its outlook (there is a good deal of gore, and a lot of below-freezing temperatures), but it sings with the whisper of hope. “The Rope” reveals a tender relationship between a young man and his alcoholic mother, and “One We Could Stand to Lose” offers a soft-spoken take on an aged hotelkeeper whose building is slated for demolition.
Hardcastle’s prose is sparse and tightly controlled. He goes for sonically rich, off-kilter verbs like squelch, shuck, knuckle and rent, and he amasses a dictionary’s worth of new nouns, foregoing hyphens in favour of condensation. Ditchturf, thawmud and bacongrease are among his better mash-ups.
He writes with the rhythm of a fighter (Hardcastle trained in Muay Thai) and his knock-out punch appears to be the sentence fragment. Read Debris and you’ll discover them on nearly every page:
Nucleuses of fire carried up logs and sticks. (42)
Stew of medication in his blood. (49)
Crack of riflefire in the hollow. (224)
In his commitment to hyperrealism in the dialogue, Hardcastle sometimes loses his handle and veers into campiness. “Well thank ‘em for me will ya,” the officer in “Old Man Marchuk” says at one point in the story. “Sure,” the constable replies. “Keep your radio nearby. Anything comes up I’ll squawk at ya.” (23)
At its least effective, Hardcastle’s commitment to a lean prose style exhausts the reader. In “To Have to Wait”, the writing feels one-dimensional and unfocused. The narrative lens keeps swivelling between the two brothers, never quite granting us access into their minds. Perhaps it has to do with the story’s placement, smack in the middle of the collection. Hardcastle deals in overt themes and motifs, and by doing so he runs the risk of oversaturation.
Debris’ crowning accomplishment is the story “Montana Border”, which featured in the June 2015 issue of The Walrus. Here Hardcastle achieves a perfect balance between lyricism and the short, fractured sentences that in other stories feel overused. Describing the character’s drive south to his next fight, Hardcastle writes:
He drove across the Montana border with the sun risen pale behind a grey sky. There were rains that had travelled ahead of him and left the asphalt black and slick. (201)
In the midst of a fight scene Hardcastle shortens up his jabs, revealing the action with crisp sensory details:
The wrestler had Daniel’s foot but Daniel shucked loose and circled out, drilled him with a straight right and then a left hook as the man got up. Blood from the wrestler’s lip and nose. Tired-dog look in his eyes. (191)
It’s this economy that keeps the reader so close to the page. Reviews of this book will no doubt allude to the ‘muscularity’ of the prose and liken Hardcastle to other writers in the country-noir tradition, but Debris earns its place as a book among books, deserving of even the most serious literary reader’s praise.