Kevin Hardcastle, Debris (Windsor: Biblioasis, 2015). Paperbound, 228 pp., $19.95.
The eleven stories in this debut collection are set mostly in the resource towns and countryside of the prairies. The characters tend to be scraping by on marginal work, petty (or more serious) crime, or to be the castoffs and victims—the debris—of the harsh economic and social environment. There is alcohol abuse, family dysfunction, violence, and the kind of exploitation that happens when people are reduced to fighting each other for scraps. The stories are told with careful precision, free of authorial judgment, in prose that reminded me of the understated lyricism of later Thomas McGuane or of David Adams Richards. As in McGuane or Richards, there are subtly redemptive qualities to the stories, but any redemption is hard-earned, and begins with a clear-eyed attention to the world that is.
A good example is the first story, "Old Man Marchuk," which opens with an elderly farmer surprising two "city boys" who are trying to steal the ATVs from his barn. The farmer—the Marchuk of the title—fires on the thieves with his shotgun. The thieves try to get away in their truck but the farmer chases them down and shoots them again. The local RCMP constable, Tom Hoye, is sent to deal with the aftermath. Hoye arrests the old man and calls an ambulance for the gravely wounded young men. The moral complexity of the original incident plays out in the rest of the story. Marchuk is indignant at being charged for shooting the thieves. A small but vocal minority agree with him, as do a group of hick cousins who drive in from north-interior British Columbia to show support. Someone paints "Eastern pig" on Hoye's garage door and someone else spins doughnuts on his lawn. Hoye returns home to find his pregnant wife "on the porch steps with a pump shotgun on her lap." The implication is that the moral line between what Marchuk did and the potential actions of a more "decent" character is finer than might first appear. This is reinforced when, after he has testified at Marchuk's trial, Hoye returns to his house in the country. He puts on his Kevlar, loads his shotgun, and lays in a supply of whisky and beer. Then, to the sound of trilling crickets mixed with "distant reports of gunfire," he takes position outside to wait for what might happen next.
What makes such stories ring true, of course, is not the "gritty" subject matter but quality of the writing. Like all of the stories in Debris, "Old Man Marchuk" is told in an economical prose with many fine details and a few subtle lyrical touches. Hardcastle crafts his own compounds ("thawmud," "ditchturf") and uses the occasional sentence fragment to present images more directly ("Shells in a line on the wooden planking beside her.") He also has a fine ear for the laconic dialogue of working-class, rural males. One of the strongest stories, I think, is "Bandits." It follows the doings of a hillbilly-like family of alcohol thieves that operates in winter on snowmobiles, from the point of view of the youngest son, who is torn between family loyalty and a desire to escape to a better life. The family outwits the RCMP until one night when the father and a brother are killed—perhaps executed by the police. The sudden evaporation of the family-gang suggests that, for all its outward appearance of strength, the power of a group like that—just as the power of a violent domineering individual like the father—is actually tenuous.
"To Have To Wait" concerns two sons on their way to pick up their father from the criminal wing of a mental hospital. At a nearby gas station, the sons ask for directions, and when the local men make disparaging remarks about the inmates of the hospital they violently attack them. The sons then carry on and pick up their father who, it is implied, was committed for some act of violence himself. Finally, in a moving scene in the car, the father scolds his sons for fighting and forces them to promise that they won't do it again. The scene is one of a number in Debrisin which severely damaged people try to assert something like a "normal" loving bond with family members. In "The Rope," a son cares for his alcoholic mother while she, in her tragic way, tries to be a mother to him. Finally, two stories that particularly illustrate how people are forced to prey upon one another are "Montana Border" and "Hunted by Coyotes." The protagonist in "Montana Border" is a cage fighter—someone participating directly in an economy based on blood sport. The narrator of "Hunted by Coyotes" is a door-to-door salesman selling scam-like "hydro plans" to a variety of human "debris"—including disabled workers from the oil fields. In both cases, the characters’ persistent desires to find love is moving, despite their own failings and despite an economic system that, like the salesman's nightmarish coyotes, hunts the vulnerable as prey.
In the acknowledgements, Hardcastle thanks a group of readers and instructors who encouraged him over the years to write "real, honest stories." The thanks are well-placed. Debris is a very fine collection, well-crafted and compelling, in which every single story rings true.