First, there’s the word itself.
Cataract is such a percussive noun. If you say it a few times, it begins to sound angry. It rattles around in your mouth till it’s expulsed.
Originally Greek (kataraktes), and used to signify something swooping or rushing down, it migrated into Latin as well (cataracta) where it came to mean a waterfall, a flood-gate or a portcullis.
It’s strange, then, that it should have become associated both with waterfalls and with a clouding of the lens of the eye which eventually causes blindness; and stranger still that both of these metaphors illuminate the struggles of the characters of Cataract City, Canadian author Craig Ferguson’s 2013 novel.
I found my way to Cataract City by way of a best books list (I can’t remember which one) that I stumbled upon online earlier this summer, and thus it became my second stop as I continue Reading Canada.
I smile as I write this because of course it seems ridiculously cliché that my reading itinerary brought me straight to Canada’s biggest tourist trap, Niagara Falls, which is, of course, Cataract City’s real (official) name.
And so, after reading about Alberta, I found myself in Southern Ontario, in a place most of us think of as a sightseeing beacon―at once iconic and over the top.
In Cataract City, however, there is none of the hype and showbiz we might expect; no raging torrent or lunatic daredevils in barrels; no glam, no glitz, no Maid of the Mist. In fact, Ferguson’s city stands in for many of the cities in decline that cling to the landscape of post-manufacturing Southern Ontario. But this one, pressed up as it is against a giant wall of water, has a special hold on its inhabitants. At least in Craig Ferguson’s universe.
All of the reviews of the book that I found (and there are many, including those in Quill& Quire, The National Post, The Guardian, Maclean’s, The Independent and The Globe and Mail) were written by men, which to me seems very telling, as the cast of characters in the novel is all male, with a single exception (local beauty and femme fatale Edwina Murphy, who is nevertheless peripheral).
Cataract City is the story of two men in particular, Owen Stuckey and Duncan Diggs, who meet as kids and form a bond of friendship that is forged in childhood when the two become lost in the woods for days, and survives through the violent and grueling years of their growing up.
Owen (also known as Dutchie, which creates a bit of confusion as Duncan is often referred to as Dunk) is the middle class kid, and Duncan, the boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks. Their dads both work at the local Nabisco factory, where Owen’s dad holds a white collar job while Duncan’s dad is on the factory floor. After his dreams of a basketball scholarship are wrecked by a brutal injury suffered in his home town at the hands of his peers, Owen becomes a police officer, while Duncan punches the clock at “the Bisk” (the Nabisco factory, the very same one where their dads work and the city’s chief employer), as he slowly descends into the subculture of the area’s underworld, and eventually winds up serving eight years in jail.
Their lives intersect early on with that of Bruiser Mahoney, a drug-addled and psychologically unhinged professional wrestler now relegated to performing in North America’s backwaters (including Cataract City); and then later with the dark and sleazy Lemmy Drinkwater from the Akwesasne reserve across the border.
Cataract City isn’t so much a sojourn through a place and a time, as it is a wandering exploration through the masculine psyche. In lovely language accented with a hardboiled sensibility, Craig Ferguson moves a select group of male characters through a brutal and uncompromising landscape of bare-knuckle boxing, greyhound racing, dog fighting, demolition derbies, drugs, alcohol, broken jaws, smashed and bloody noses, concussions, starvation and frostbite, betrayal and retribution―and he seems captivated by it all.
In much the same way as men are often said to prefer driving around lost, for miles and miles, rather than stop to ask someone for help and directions, so do the men of Cataract City seem unable to follow the torrent of Niagara Falls away from the unfulfilling and dead-end lives they lead in their home town. Only Edwina succeeds. The men seem stricken by a kind of existential blindness―an inability to see and believe in the possibility of another, better life.
In the end, the novel’s most memorable character is Cataract City itself, and while it is Duncan’s doom that we are always fearful of finding there, it is Owen, the narrator of the first and last parts of the novel―whose life seemed to hold the most promise―who is most immune to the moving waters of his home town. As he reflects in the novel’s epilogue:
“Still, you can come to resent your home. You can fill yourself with the need to escape it. I remember feeling that way, then looking across Lake Ontario at the steel spires and reflective glass of the bigger city in the distance, unable to fathom the industry taking place there. But my smaller city, Cataract City, made sense in an elemental way, the same way wrestling did back when I was a boy.”
And a little further:
“(…) Time shifts and passes more quickly, and I sense things will never seem as real as they did in those days. Still, there’s a vital current that runs through the heart of Cataract City too. That current twists and bends and flows into still pools from which there is no exit. And there is a shadow side to that current, an undertow that flows toward the Falls. In it you can see things toiling, things shifting. And there are always hands to beckon you over. “
Niagara Falls has attracted the interest of novelists just as it has tourists over the years, including such talents as Barbara Gowdy, Jane Urquhart, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Simpson, Camilla Gibbs and Howard Engel.
So, if you plan a literary stop in Niagara Falls as you travel along, “Reading Canada”, you won’t be disappointed!