When I opened the bottle of Badger Hill’s High Road Everyday Ale and passed it to my dad, neither of us expected it to fizz up and foam over. The beer flowed over my outstretched hand and spilled onto the floor. Dad stayed dry in his recliner, fortunately, but the dog, Gus, ran for the puddle—mouth open and tongue wagging—before I could stop the flow and get to mopping.
In a glass, High Road has a hazy golden color, a slightly floral scent with some fruity hop funk, a light pilsner malt base, a touch of butterscotch, and a jolt of carbonation. At just 5% ABV, it’s probably even safe for the dog. And that’s good, because he seemed to really like it.
The dogs in Cynan Jones’ novel, “The Dig,” don’t have it quite so good. Neither do the rats, badgers, lambs, or men, for that matter. Set in rural farmland, this violent story, which spans just 150 pages, forgoes back-story and shuns character development in favor of focusing on place, action, and the morality of two men: “the big man” and Daniel. The resulting story, a simplistic and masterfully executed portrait of good versus evil, is evocative of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road,” winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The first character Jones introduces is “the big man.” He’s a gypsy type who operates outside the law to make money, “digging” badgers out of their setts and baiting them with terriers to sell to an underground fighting ring. We first meet him on a dark roadside late at night, working to dispose of a deceased badger. The author doesn’t reveal details in the narration of how the big man ended up in this line of work. Instead, Jones drops us into this world in the same way McCarthy drops us into “The Road,” exposing the big man’s character through his actions. We cringe as we watch him inflict gratuitous pain on badgers, dogs, and possibly other men—taking advantage of anything and anyone he can.
Daniel, on the other hand, stands as the antithesis of the big man. Instead of inflicting pain on others, Daniel experiences it as a farmer struggling through lambing season after the accidental death of his wife. Jones slowly reveals the circumstances surrounding Daniel’s wife’s death and the state of his emotions, and, as he does, our sympathy for the farmer accumulates weight and heft. In this way, Daniel comes to resemble the father character in McCarthy’s novel: tormented by past events and wrestling to move beyond them.
Both men are bound to animals and the land they inhabit, and their relationships with those animals are equally violent. But unlike the big man, who is motivated by greed and power, Daniel must do this difficult work in order to keep his farm running. This difference is most apparent when Daniel finds one of his ewes unable to birth her twin lambs. After a quick examination, Daniel understands he must surgically remove them. The “pool of blood and fluids that messed the straw” make Daniel feel physically ill, but where the gory scene of the big man and the badger paints him as an evil man, this use of graphic language is used to portray Daniel as a compassionate man who has suffered too much.
The contrast between Daniel and the big man allows Jones to illustrate what may be the moral of his story: humanity is compelled toward violence, but violent acts alone do not make a man good or bad. Instead, one must account also for the reasons behind those actions and how they are performed.
Though it is difficult to spend time, however brief, in a world so full of violence, Jones rewards readers by writing of beautiful landscapes and intense emotions with the clarity and efficiency of Hemingway. He also has a taste for strange vocabulary and syntax, which at times further echoes McCarthy. Passages like “A single nail was through each skull and they hung as misshaped macabre pouches” may, in fact, fit well within “The Road.”
Unlike “The Road,” however, which ends a bit ambiguously with equal measures of sadness and hope, Jones offers a conclusion for “The Dig” that is so bizarrely appropriate it’s almost comical. Bad deeds, it turns out, do not go unpunished—at least not in Jones’ harsh yet poetic world.