Twenty-five-year-old Paul Harris has up until now led a privileged life, helping his father, Jack, run the family owned Winery in southern Ontario. Recently, however, Paul has been plagued by restlessness and a huge sense of disassociation between what he's capable of and what he
has aspired to. He frequently strikes Jack as frail and useless, never showing the slightest bit of ambition.
When Paul is severely beaten outside a nightclub, the event kickstarts an unremitting yearning as this young man steadily finds himself caught up in a state of anger that bubbles up from nowhere, manifesting itself in an undirected fist-pounding fury. Paul begins spending empty days in the grape fields with the pickers, up before dawn and enduring long hours of backbreaking labor.
Jack is embarrassed for his son and concerned over the reputation of the business, but for Paul, manual labor provides a solace and a positive outlet for his pent-up and uncontained energies. For a time his anger is controlled, but soon enough it begins to manifest itself in other forms, such as a cold nausea and nameless dread that has buried itself under the weight of physical exhaustion.
Before long, Paul is hitting the weights at the local fitness center, and it his here that he meets Stacey, an amoral gym proprietor and ex-championship bodybuilder who begins him on a regimine of illegal steroids, which in turn initiates a transformation of this young man into a
beefy, hyper-adrenaline, muscular beast.
Paul's nemesis, Rob Tully, trains with his Uncle Tommy at Top Rank, a ramshackle gym located deep in the basement of a paint store. Once a champion boxer, Tommy's career has seen better days, but he still loves the sport and he's determined, along with Rob's pot-bellied father, Rueben, to bring out the best in his talented young nephew who continues to show great skill as a boxer.
Rob trains hard and fights regularly and is ultimately drawn to the rush of the boxing life, yet he possesses no true love of the sport and worries whether this is all that there'll ever be. While he spends his days sparring with Tommy, Paul, also having discovered the magic of the boxing rink, grows steadily
attuned to the familiar rhythms of life in the gym, reveling in the blood and the sweat.
When Paul begins to think about participating in a genuine fight, his trainer tells him about The Barn, a rundown shed far out in the country, where on the second Thursday of each month, among the straw and bales of hay, real fighters gather. Operating under its own laws, The Barn is where "the washed up trial horses and the bare knuckled clubbers" brutally act out their blood-soaked destinies
on a makeshift sawdust floor.
Among the men who have bared the mistakes of their trade with their "warn out and mangled foreheads, their split brows and pitcher lips," Paul, Rob, and even Tommy eventually come head to head with their respective fates, getting down and dirty
amid these men who are hurt in ways from which they will never recover.
Paul, with his with copious bruises and his missing teeth, seems frantic to peel away the layers of his masculinity, trying desperately for a glimpse of the violence that perhaps lies beneath the surface of his skin.
Through the character of Paul, author Craig Davidson delves deep into the nature of rage and suffering, introducing an element of psychopathology as Paul realizes that only knowledge and atonement can come from pain as it washes over him, attempting to cleanse his every wrong.
This novel is without a doubt an absolute tour-de-force of violence and a fascinating expose on this hardscrabble and blood-fuelled life as Davidson explores what it really means to be a man and to be masculine. Once frail, moneyed and fearful, Paul is newly muscled, a giant adrenaline and drug-fuelled monster absolutely awed at the notion that he can reduce another human being to a thoughtless slab of meat.
The author offers up an astonishing view of these fighters with their battle scars, their welts and bruises, even their missing ears, "not a full set of teeth among them." It's indeed a rough occupation for those whose sole value lies in their willingness to absorb punishment. After all, these are men who are intent to follow the path of "yesterday's man," forever exploring their glorified bloodlust and their ancient power to endure the unavoidable pain of the ring.