Monday, April 11, 2011

Fighting for Respect: F.X. Toole's Short Stories

Review of "Million Dollar Baby: Stories from the Corner" by F.X. Toole, originally published as "Rope Burns."

Though F.X. Toole writes novellas and short stories, this collection reads like a rough and gritty love poem to the science, art and war of boxing. To Toole boxing isn’t a sport, it’s a mindset, an epic struggle battle, a code of honor and a way of life. Boxing is such an integral part of America’s collective social and cultural history, there’s no denying that. But what Toole does in this collection is show the boxing fan and fiction reader alike that the real stories in boxing haven’t been told, or at least haven’t been heard. Contenders and champions are always major characters in mainstream boxing tales. The boxing narrative is one of a tough-minded and rock solid fighter who’s determined to win and does. Not in this collection. Toole’s short fiction focuses on the cut men, the trainers, the promoters, the gamblers, the managers, the losers and the criminals.

Toole is fascinated with a dichotomy within the boxing world. On one hand, it’s an individual sport. The individual has to have the skills, the physical ability, the endurance, the mental strength and the dedication, or he (or she) is in for a beating. On the other hand, a boxer is no one without support. A boxer is only as good as those in his corner. And that’s where Toole comes in. A corner man for his entire life, he offers a unique perspective on the boxing world that is rarely, if ever, seen.

The short story “The Monkey Look” has one of the best opening lines I’ve read in a long time. “I stop blood.” It’s a story told from the perspective of one of boxing’s unsung heroes, the cut man. The monkey look refers to the face of a fighter who’s been cut a lot. Scar tissue builds up around the eyes and the skin above the eyelid droops from severed nerves. The story is a close-up look at the physics and details of what goes on during those three-minute rounds and the sixty second rests between them.

Boxing, for this cut man narrator, is about respect, rules and honor. “I love boxing almost as much as I love the sacraments. You play by the rules. You never throw a fight, and you never throw intentional low blows… unless the other guy does it first.” And, sure enough, this story is about the one time when “the other guy does it first.” The cut man’s fighter plans to screw him over financially, take all his money and beat him up after the fight. But the cut man gets word of this and comes up with a plan of his own. He knows his fighter’s a bleeder, and he knows if he pretends to heal the cuts the fight could be stopped and his fighter TKO’d. So the cut man bets on the other guy. During the fight, he goes through the motions, but doesn’t really stop the cuts in his fighter’s eyes. Sure enough, his fighter bleeds and bleeds and the fight is called off. The cut man has broken the rules, but only because the rules had to be broken. In the end, it’s not the best fighter, but the smartest and most determined man who walks away the winner. The story is gritty, real and packed with humor. Hemingway would have been proud to read this story.

“Black Jew” is told from the perspective of a different first-person narrator, still a cut man, but a cut man with a grinding accent and streetwise prose that’s clipped of all the possessive pronouns and articles. It’s the story of a fighter who just can’t get no respect. He’s heading into a fight he’s expected to lose, and the promoters, hotel staff and boxing professionals treat him like a loser. But Reggie has come to win, and win he does. After his upset win, the promoters and marketers are all over him. In boxing, you’re up or you’re down. It’s a cruel and cutthroat business, and this story does a great job of depicting that.

“Million Dollar Baby” starts off with a great quote from trainer Frankie Dunn: “Everything in boxing is backwards to life.” It’s written in third-person, which isn’t Toole’s strongest. A woman fighter named Maggie comes in and wants Dunn to train her, but Dunn is reluctant to say the least. “Girls getting busted up went against everything he believed in.” The story breezes through days, months and years. Dunn and Maggie become “blood,” and Dunn becomes the father she never really had. Dunn finally gets Maggie a shot at a title fight, and that’s when tragedy strikes. She’s cut down by a blow after the bell and breaks her neck. She’s paralyzed for life. Dunn, a Catholic, has a hard time when Maggie asks him for one final favor. She wants him to put her out of her misery. The story reads like a clipped pitch for the screenplay. And maybe because I loved the movie so much, I found the story to be a bit lacking in drive and emotion. Still, with the fantastic Clint Eastwood film in mind, I was able to picture the characters in the film through the story, which made for a great reading experience.

“They say we because they fight when their fighter fights and when their fighter gets hit, they get hit. When the fighter wins or loses, they win or lose, and together they feel what that’s like.” This is the theme of “Fightin in Philly,” a story about a boxer and his team. Toole writes so poetically about wrapping a fighter's hands before the fight. It's something so mundane, but Toole brings it to life and makes the reader feel it, and understand its importance. The trainer in this third-person story is like a student of the human body and what happens when that body is put into extreme physical circumstances. On tour with his fighter, he takes time to run to an art museum and studies Michelangelo’s casts. He says a professional boxer, "uses what he needs when he needs it, this explains how one fighter will run out of gas in the second or the sixth round, while another can fight all night." It's those fights that the boxing fan remembers, those of two professionals going at each other. And this trainer wants to train only the best. He points out how carefully the hands must be wrapped before a fight. Fighters can miss punches if they lose circulation or shatter bones if the hands aren't wrapped enough. A fighter really has to trust his team with his own safety. In this story, Toole really breaks down the socio-political and racial events of the fifties and sixties. He shows this through the realm of boxing. The world of boxing was a hotbed of racial tensions in that time, and still is to some extent. And Toole provides great insight into that time period in American history. What do you do in a fight with someone who is dedicated to hitting you below the belt? This story is about boxing done dirty, and about how a good fighter can deal with a dirty one and still come out on top.

“Rope Burns,” the original titular story, is a powerful piece of prose. It's the story of Mac, a streetwise old white trainer, and his young black fighter Puddin. Mac shows Pudin that if you want respect, you've got to take it. Mac is full of lots of witty and hilarious statements. Great boxing is “like chess with pain.” You fight fair. The only reason to fight dirty is if the other guy does. The story of a young fighter who turns to boxing as an alternative to a life of crime is set against the backdrop of the impending decision in the Rodney King beating case. Mac is a hard drinking, tough Irishman, and Puddin is a poor black kid with promise. These two powerful forces come together to form the apex of this narrative. Puddin, the promising, dedicated fighter, ends up in tragedy and Mac is left feeling like he lost a son. The story, like the streets of L.A. after the King decision, ends in an orgy of violence that would put Quentin Tarantino to shame. Still, it's an amazing story, and F.X. Toole is a talented storyteller.

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