Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Five Books of boxing

Light blogging today, because I have been doing something with books other than reading them—building a new bookcase for myself, using the new Bosch router that my wife presented me for my birthday.

My Five Books of baseball elicited a lot of commentary, though. So I thought I’d follow up with the Five Books of my second-favorite sport—boxing. Two of the five will come to mind even for those who are indifferent to the sport. The remaining three are treats to be discovered and rolled around on the tongue, by fan and non-fan alike.

(1.) A. J. Liebling, The Sweet Science (1956). The Library of America made a regrettable mistake in binding Liebling’s classic collection of boxing essays together with his press criticism, food writing, and character study of Gov. Earl Long. A better volume would have included the essays posthumously collected by Fred Warner and James Barbour in A Neutral Corner (1990). Anyone who reads Liebling on boxing is converted to Liebling or the sport or both. “Ahab and Nemesis,” his account of Rocky Marciano’s heavyweight title defense against light-heavy champion Archie Moore, has the taste and consistency of a good French sauce—the perfect blend of literary sophistication, inside knowledge, and an appreciation for a great man (Moore) and greater fighter (Marciano). This is Liebling at the top of his game, but anything he ever wrote about boxing is worth tracking down and reading without waiting.

(2.) W. C. Heinz, The Professional (1958). Like Liebling, Heinz was a reporter who prided himself on understanding the sport from the inside, and that includes the seamier side, including crooked managers and mob control of purses and crowns. The firsthand knowledge wards off the romantic virus that infects so much baseball fiction. Eddie Brown is a middleweight contender, and Heinz tells the story of his quest for the title without ornamentation or lyricism. Although the prose is stripped down to names, places, and straightforward dialogue—just like Hemingway said it should be—his style could hardly be described as “hard-boiled.” Heinz does not pretend to hardness and disillusionment; he lets his characters achieve them.

(3.) Leonard Gardner, Fat City (1969). The novel everyone expects to be on the list. Denis Johnson testifies to his love for the novel in words that I cannot hope to rival. All I can add is that I first read the novel a couple of years after it came out at Raymond Carver’s urging, and suddenly I saw Carver’s own fiction in a new light. If Gardner had gone on to write more fiction, Carver would not have needed to. Fat City is set among the underclass of boxing—the dead-end club fighters who never dream of glory because they don’t have enough time to dream. Robert Ryan created the role, so to speak, in Robert Wise’s 1949 film The Set-Up. John Huston’s 1972 film of Gardner’s novel, with Stacy Keach unforgettable as Tully, is less about boxing than the underworld the boxers inhabit. But it is brilliant nevertheless.

(4.) Hugh McIlvanney, The Hardest Game (1996). McIlvanney covered boxing for the Sunday Times for thirty years. His collection of fight reports opens with an essay that must be read by any hysteric who calls for boxing’s abolition. Boxing is a risky game, he acknowledges, but the risks, which every boxer knows too well, are central to the sport’s appeal. “[I]f the game loses its rawness,” McIlvanney writes, “it is nothing. If it ever became a kind of fencing with fists, a mere trial of skills, reflexes and agility, and not the test of courage, will and resilience that it is now, then it would lose its appeal for many who are neither sadists nor seekers after the trappings of virility.” The rest of the book abundantly demonstrates his case that boxing is a test of courage, will, and resilience. Yet the book also contains a sad account of the death of Welsh bantamweight Johnny Owen, who never regained consciousness after being knocked out by Lupe Pintor in September 1980. McIlvanney reminds me that you can judge a boxing writer by the fighter he admires most. For him it is Joe Frazier.

(5.) George MacDonald Fraser, Black Ajax (1997). A historical novel, not part of the Flashman series, although Flashman makes his appearance as a fan, about the early nineteenth-century bare-knuckle heavyweight Tom Molineaux, an ex-slave who fought in England. Fraser tells the story of Molineaux’s last fight, when the former great is aging, a mere shell of his former self, and near death. He uses the technique of multiple and shifting points-of-view, as if taking testimony at an inquest, to great effect. And as always with Fraser, the historical reenactment is exacting and persuasive. A tragic story about an impossibly brave man, whom history afforded no other means to display his courage—as is true of so many boxers—than in the four-cornered ring.


R/T said...

Breaking the rules a bit since this is not a novel about boxing but includes a boxer as a character, I would nominate Robert Cohn and THE SUN ALSO RISES as a noteworthy tale in which boxing figures prominently on the margins of the plot. Hemingway's interest in boxing comes through clearly as does his disgust with the posturing Cohn.

D. G. Myers said...

See my blog-essay on the shlimil for another view of Cohn and The Sun Also Rises. Don’t forget how Bill talks about the African-American boxer he sees in Paris, whom he refers to repeatedly as the n----r.

Finally, there is the “good fight” between Charles Ledoux and Kid Francis that opens Chapter IX. Jake says that it took place on “the night of the 20th of June.” In actuality, Francis beat Ledoux on points in twelve rounds on June 9, 1925, at the Cirque de Paris. My small contribution to the correction of literary history.

Jonathan said...

Are you familiar with Pinckney Benedict's "Dogs of God".

I'm not making extravagant claims for the novel - I thought it spiraled out of control after the first hundred pages - but, there are some reasonably decent sections about training and backwoods cash-money boxing in it.

Finally, and out of curiosity, where do you place the writing of F.X. Toole in your consideration of boxing fiction?

R/T said...

Thanks for the follow up insights on Cohn and TSAR. H. R. Stoneback has a terrific book (READING HEMINGWAY'S The Sun Also Rises: GLOSSARY AND COMMENTARY - published by The Kent State UP) in which he clears up many of the allusions and confusions in TSAR. Sorry . . . I know that this diverges sharply from the premise of your original post, but TSAR remains one of my favorite novels, and I never get tired of including it in literature courses (though students become so preoccupied with the marathon alcohol consumption and Brett's personality that they need frequent course-corrections so that they also focus in on Hemingway's theme of pilgrimage--among many others). Now, I'm off to read about your shlimil perspective; however, doesn't shlimil suggest good-hearted innocence and incompetence (which I think does not quite embrace Cohn's personality though I withhold further comment until I read your analysis).

ProfessorBS said...

I would offer David Remnick's book about Mr. Ali, King of the World. I have long been an admirer of Remnick's writing (and regret that his editing job overshadows it.)

David K. said...

Mark Kram's "Ghosts of Manila." It's not a novel but it is a fantastic account of the Ali/Frazier fight in Manila and it's aftermath.

Like the recent HBO documentary "Thrilla in Manila" (but much deeper and better), it punctures some of the myths surrounding Ali and shows him for what he was.

In addition to the book I would suggest Kram's account of the fight for Sports Illustrated ("Lawdy Lawdy He's Great) which may be the greatest sports article ever written on deadline.
Here is a link to the full version:

David K. said...

I forgot the writings of John Lardner (Ring's son) who died young in the late 1950s and is my pick for the greatest sports writer ever.

He wrote a lot about the 'fight dodge' as he called it and wrote this immortal lead, “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”

Any of his sportswriting or war correspondance is recommended but especially, "White Hopes and Other Tigers" which is long oop but well worth tracking down.