This books starts out throwing punches and the hits keep coming. See what I did there? Punny right? Using boxing cliches for a book about underground fighting and criminal activities? Bad jokes aside, this book is one violent moment after another.
In In the Cage, we meet Daniel, a former mixed martial arts fighter who hasn’t really given up the fight. He’s got a smart wife, and a daughter he adores but he’s constantly on the lookout for work in the rural community he grew up in. He’s lacking for skills in anything but hard labour and fighting. The family is in debt and struggling to keep afloat. To make up the financial difference, Daniel takes on some work from an old friend who is heavily into criminal activities involving drugs and weapons and looking to expand his empire. After a job goes south—way, way south—Daniel walks out on the crew and tries to make a go of things honestly. It’s not that easy. Times are tough. He stays out and heads back into fight training. Shit hits the fan.
Author Kevin Hardcastle is trying to make the argument that people will do what they need to to survive, and to support the people they love and if what they do is illegal, well, sometimes that’s the only viable option. He doesn’t over-do it trying to create sympathy for the family: Daniel’s wife Sarah drinks, even if she’s a pretty good care attendant in a nursing home, and the daughter gets into fights but she’s average in most ways. They drive a beat up truck, their friends are a little bit rough but are happy to share a meal and a beer. There’s an honesty to the characters—they are plain, ordinary people living the best way they can in an economically depressed community. Their dreams are small and realistic. They are ordinary. This is almost a refreshing break from the typical story arch of small town, poor kid makes it big and rises above the troubles live gave him/her. Hardcastle’s tale is likely more common.
The title is appropriate too. At first blush, you think it applies to the fact Daniel was a cage fighter. But then you realize the title is description of how life, choices and circumstances can cage us, trap us and keep us locked up. Sometimes you have to fight your way out. Sometimes, the fight you give isn’t enough to overcome economics and poverty.
I read this almost immediately after reading Tales of Two Americas, also about class, race and poverty and although this is a fiction, the story would not have been out of place. Perhaps Freeman should consider Hardcastle’s writing for his next collection. Although I would hardly presume to tell an editor what to do. It’s just a good-natured suggestion.