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Book Review: Pound For Pound by F.X. Toole

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F.X. Toole is best known as author of the short story that inspired the Oscar-winning movie Million Dollar Baby. He did not live to see the publication of his first novel, Pound For Pound, nor even to complete a polished draft. But given the subject matter – small-time boxers trying to make it to the pros – there would be something wrong with the novel if it didn't read a little rough around the edges. In fact, there is a greater sense of completeness here – in the pitch-perfect dialogue, in the well-timed collision of intersecting story lines, in the gritty insider's view of the ring – than we find in most carefully crafted efforts coming out of today's MFA programs.

While the novel is about boxing, let's be straight: it's as much a novel about boxing as The Old Man and the Sea is a novel about fishing. F.X. Toole shows a firm command of that rare art: understatement. He seems to tell his readers nothing but the facts. And yet, running beneath a beguiling transparency of words is a depth that, by the last page, has welled to the surface and can no longer be glossed over. By the last page, we shake our heads and realize that all along we were really reading a story about the promise of redemption.

The promise comes in many forms. For the young kid running to the neighborhood gym after school, boxing holds the promise of freedom from older bullies. For the hoards of serious amateurs who serve as the story's backdrop – the Chicano's, Mexicans, Tex-Mexes, blacks, the Irish poor – boxing is the only way they know to free themselves from their prisons of class and race. But for the novel's main characters, the motivations are more powerful still.

Dan Cooley is an aging trainer who, with his partner, Earl, owns an auto-body shop with a gym in the back. Dan and Earl know the art of boxing. They have "juice" and they have integrity. They can teach an aspiring amateur to throw a hard punch, but more than that, they can teach him how to box pretty. As a young man, Dan had a shot at the welterweight title, but lost when Eloy Garza, the Wolf, landed a punch that crushed the orbital bones around one eye and ended his boxing career. Even years later, Dan suspects that something was wrong with the match, but he is powerless to say what.

And so begins a litany of loss. Dan loses the title. One by one, he loses his children to accidents and illness. Later, his wife dies. Now, all that remains is his grandson, Tim Pat, a young boy who is showing signs that he shares his grandfather's aptitude in the ring. One afternoon, Tim Pat takes a break from the gym to get ice cream from a passing truck. He stumbles into the path of an oncoming car and dies at the scene.

The driver is a teenaged girl named Guadalupe who signs to her deaf brother sitting in the passenger seat, but Dan, in his grief and rage, interprets the signing as gang-related hand signals. He tries to strangle the girl, but the police pull him away and put him in handcuffs. Later, he stalks the girl and nearly succeeds in killing her.

Dan loses the one thing he has left; he loses his faith. At each of the last funerals, he had given a check for a thousand dollars as a donation to the local church, but this time he tears up the check underneath the priest's nose and walks away.

He becomes morbidly depressed, he doesn't eat or sleep properly, he starts his mornings with vodka and orange juice, and his symptoms of heart disease return. He sees no hope and so begins to drive east from L.A. with a view to killing himself in the hills south of El Paso. We journey with Dan into the darkest reaches of his despair. In lesser hands, the reader might have given up all feeling for such a character, but Toole sustains our empathy, and soon we find ourselves moving with Dan out of the darkness. It begins when Dan nearly runs down a dog on the highway, and finding that it is starved and ill, he carries it to his car. His own redemption begins when he himself commits an act of redemption.

Running in counterpoint to Dan's journey is the story of "Chicky" Garza, a light-skinned Tex-Mex youth who has the discipline and the drive to go pro. He got his start training with his grandfather, Eloy, The Wolf, but now he trains with Trini and Paco. This pair is nothing like Dan and Earl. They are competent trainers, but all their "juice" comes in bottles and syringes, and their clients include Eloy, who has become a serious morphine addict.

Trini and Paco set Chicky up to fight Psycho Sykes, touted as the next Mike Tyson, backed by two white lawyers with more money than smarts. They see Sykes as an Olympic contender and a good investment. But anyone who knows boxing can see that Sykes is just a street fighter with a few extra moves; he doesn't have what it takes to box pretty. This becomes apparent even to the lawyer promoters when they watch Chicky fight in a preliminary match and realize that it may well be Chicky who advances to the nationals. So they fix the fight.

With some cash under the table, Trini makes Chicky's passbook disappear; the boy isn't allowed to fight and Sykes wins on a walkover. Chicky doesn't understand, but his grandfather knows full well that something dirty has happened. He confronts Trini about the fix but can't do anything about it, not so much because he is dependent upon Trini for his supply of morphine as from shame that Chicky might find out about his habit. Trini and Eloy work out a deal that sees Chicky leaving town for a while. And so begins the novel's other journey. Chicky drives west from Texas to L.A. with cash from his grandfather and a piece of advice: look up Dan Cooley.

For most of the novel, Dan and Chicky circle each other in separate orbits. Chance events bring them together, but there is a kind of necessity in their meeting. Chicky becomes an agent of reconciliation in Dan's life, helping to bring Eloy and Dan to an understanding, helping to relieve Eloy of the guilt he has been carrying with him for years. In turn, Dan becomes an agent of reconciliation for Chicky by training him and preparing him for a rematch with Psycho Sykes. But Dan is clear about one thing: Chicky cannot pursue this for revenge. Revenge will taint the match; he will fight from anger and then lose his edge. And finally, Dan heeds his own lesson as he gradually overcomes his anger at Guadalupe and begins to desire a reconciliation with her.

It is no accident that the novel leaves us, on the final pages, with the twin images of religious and boxing paraphernalia. Concerned that Dan will die in the hospital, the priest arrives with all the accoutrements to deliver the sacraments. At the same time, we learn the outcome of Chicky's confrontation, with all the accoutrements of a very different ritual: the tape, the gloves, the thrombin and adrenaline for cuts.

Toole is too good a writer to tell us what to think. He presents these images side by side and we are left to draw our own conclusions. One thing is certain: Toole has not been spinning yet another boxing yarn; underneath everything lie the traces of a spiritual quest. These people risk everything they have and everything they are as they seek their satisfaction. Is the cost worth it? Sometimes the price seems so high that we have our doubts. And Toole isn't about to tell us either.

Pound For Pound is not a pretty book. It has no flowery prose and its language is about as far as one can get from poetry. But it speaks truthfully. Pound For Pound is a must-read, and I suspect the buzz generated by its publication is only a faint murmur compared to what will follow.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!