Whenever someone suggests that the writing in a story, novel, or film script resembles recorded speech, one can be reasonably assured the product in question is the work of a consummate stylist. Actual speech transcribed verbatim would be virtually unreadable, characterized by hesitations, verbal counters, repetition, and grammatically incoherent constructions. By contrast, writers who are frequently praised for their naturalistic approach to dialogue and description – Elmore Leonard, David Mamet, and Quentin Tarantino among them – are in fact highly rigorous craftspeople who expend a great deal of time and energy to make their writing seem effortless.
Kevin Hardcastle is a precise and painstaking stylist. If his writing appears on the surface colloquial and unrefined, that is only because he works diligently to achieve this effect. The giveaway is in his use of language. Take this sentence, from the opening section of his story “Old Man Marchuck”: “They’d not heard the squelching of bootfalls in the thawmud near the barn.” The word “squelching” is specific and evocative, the term “bootfalls” affords greater resonance than the more ordinary and expected “footsteps,” and the compound noun “thawmud” provides an almost forensic depiction of the setting that is economical and syntactically unconventional, while never appearing forced or artificial. Similarly, this sentence from later in the same episode, a moment of action that, in Hardcastle’s hands, takes on the mantle of rough poetry: “Old man Marchuck cut into the other lane and the driver of the one-ton chickened out and slammed his brakes, went too far wide this time and ended up ploughing sandied ditchturf for about a hundred feet before the vehicle shuddered to a stop.” (The elision of the preposition in “slammed his brakes” combined with the colourful particularity of “sandied ditchturf” are the telltale stylistic signals.)
“I was just copying Hemingway to start,” Hardcastle told Quill & Quire magazine about his formal approach to building sentences. “And then, when I found Cormac McCarthy, that changed a lot.” Indeed, in its suppleness and linguistic pyrotechnics, Hardcastle’s signature style owes a greater debt to McCarthy than to Hemingway. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Old Man Marchuck,” not just in the verbal acrobatics, but also in the narrative approach. Readers who were dissatisfied by McCarthy’s decision to have Moss’s murder in No Country for Old Men take place offstage may feel a similar tug of reproach while reading Hardcastle’s story – and for much the same reason. Moss’s demise in McCarthy’s novel is anticlimactic only if one assumes he is the central figure in the story; once the reader realizes it is actually Sheriff Ed Tom’s story, the author’s chosen tactic begins to make more sense. In the same way, Hardcastle subverts his reader’s expectations by making the eponymous figure in his story a secondary character; the person we should be paying attention to is the dogged and determined constable, Tom Hoye.
The elevation of Hoye to the position of centrality in the story also testifies to another aspect of Hardcastle’s writing: while “Old Man Marchuck” is putatively a crime story, it has a strong moral centre, setting it apart from the nihilism of the noir genre it resembles on its surface. Hardcastle is part of a new generation of masculine Canadian writers – others include Andrew F. Sullivan, Kris Bertin, and Craig Davidson – who focus on the rural poor, criminals, addicts, and others on the margins of conventionally respectable society. These authors play with the boundaries of genre writing, experimenting with different approaches to the traditional crime story within the context of a broader examination of class and the struggles of poverty stricken or otherwise neglected figures. In so doing, they elevate characters who are often relegated to minor roles or treated with a kind of elitist condescension or pity. As is the case elsewhere in Hardcastle’s published work, “Old Man Marchuck” finds nobility in its depiction of an undistinguished man struggling to retain his good character in the face of violence and intransigence.
The story opens with an aborted heist: a couple of locals attempt to steal old man Marchuck’s ATVs. After a brief chase, the eponymous character unloads a shotgun on the two would-be thieves then turns himself in to the police. Constable Tom Hoye gets the call and arrests Marchuck; after being charged in the shooting of the two men, Marchuck enlists his extended family to torment Hoye and his pregnant wife.
The story takes place in rural Alberta, outside Red Deer. In its tone and content, “Old Man Marchuck” resembles the kind of backcountry crime narrative typical of American writers like Donald Ray Pollock and Daniel Woodrell, though Hardcastle’s individual variation on this template is marked, once again, by his careful attention to language and technique. “The two young burglars didn’t die but came about as close to it as they could,” the author writes at one point. And elsewhere: “Marchuck tried to get out of his chair and Hoye stood and sat him back down by his shoulder.” There is a toughness to the writing but also an abiding compassion and humanity that helps balance the mayhem and wanton destruction.
There is no sentimentality to be found, however. Hoye’s wife gives birth to a son, which offers a thin vein of hope (the child is born premature), but the fate of Marchuck and his family members is withheld – Hardcastle refuses his readers the satisfaction of retributive justice at the story’s close. Instead, the final scene has Hoye alone in his driveway, drinking beer and Irish whiskey with a Remington pump-action rifle by his side. He sits forlornly, listening to the coyotes howl and attending to the sound of his portable CB radio, which is “silent except for sparse chatter between the dispatch and the constables as they roamed the territories.”