Taking all comers

Craig Davidson tackles illegal brawls, steroid abuse--and modern-day masculinity.

“I want to hit a nerve so hard, it makes people want to beat the shit out of me.”

That's writer Craig Davidson, explaining his writing philosophy over the phone from Iowa City, Iowa. Clearly, the Toronto native is getting somewhere with his reverse-psychology tactics: literary provocateurs Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis both blurbed his debut short story collection, 2005's Rust and Bone. (The collection tackles everything from sex addiction to involuntary amputation.)

Out this fall, Davidson's novel, The Fighter, will both delight and disturb. In adrenalin-drenched prose, it relates the intertwined stories of two young boxers who end up fighting illegal bare-handed bouts in a barn near Niagara Falls, Ont. To prepare, Davidson trained as a boxer for two months. His research soon took a dark turn.

“During my second revision period,” he recalls, “I decided to have the main character [go] on steroids.” He discovered a website that sold steroid kits. “I was going through such hell with this book. So I ordered a kit.”

He began injecting himself with three or four needles per week. “They worked,” he says. “I went up to about 240 pounds, and I was bench-pressing my own weight. But my balls shrunk to almost negligible size, and my prostate swelled up so I was pissing 15 times a day. I'm off them now, and I'll never go back on…I was thinking it was a Hunter S. Thompson participatory journalism sort of thing, but I broke my parents' hearts when they found out.”

Davidson's pain is his book's gain: the chapter where one of the two boxers embarks on a steroid-fuelled rampage in Welland is uncomfortably, unforgettably hilarious. Davidson says his publisher questioned how far he had gone with this passage, but he remained resolute.

Better to go too far than not far enough. Canada's literary landscape is strewn with the remaindered corpses of books that lack the courage of any conviction. Davidson writes with emotion, but no sentimentality, about a generation of pampered young males who put themselves through physical and psychological trials in order to find themselves as men. “We're not offered a lot of real, genuine ways of [growing up] in today's society…. People think I write tough-guy fiction, but I'm actually writing about very confused people who don't know where they fit in society, and go down very destructive roads.”

Davidson is looking forward to his next personal trial of masculinity: boxing poet Michael Knox in a four-round bout, in Toronto, to promote his book. No matter the outcome, he is determined to be a man about it.”If I do get knocked out,” he reflects, “I'll just drag my ass up off the canvas, shake his hand, say, 'Bloody good punch,' and go out and get drunk with whoever happens to be there.”