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On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates, with photographs by John Ranard (Doubleday: $14.95, and in limited edition, $40; 118 pp.)

March 01, 1987|Carolyn See

Now, " 'What's wrong with killing a human? . . . The first time you kill someone, you throw up, you get sick as a dog. . . . I burnt a man like an animal. . . . I staked him to the ground. I wired his hands and his arms, and I put paper around him and I burnt him like an animal. They said, "You are mentally sick." ' In reform school, Jordan was taught how to box: entered the Golden Gloves Tournament and won all his matches, and eventually competed in the Olympics, where he did less well."

Only Joyce Carol Oates could have unearthed this grisly and enchanting quote; or, more accurately, only Joyce Carol Oates would have included it in an elegant book intended, among other things, to be sold in limited edition for $40 a shot. "On Boxing" is something like a head-on collision, or a roller-coaster joy ride, or a 12-hour-long domestic argument that may end in a shooting. Oates has a world view so dazzlingly scary and relentlessly tough that in the literary scheme of things, she makes Ernest Hemingway look like a dancing school sissy in knee socks. No matter that Oates is just a girl and weighs in at something like 95 pounds, she's the Junior-junior Flyweight of the American School of Hard-Boiled Violent Writing--and she seems out to prove at the most basic level that she's not just making up stories about how we live in this country. Boxing is not a metaphor, she insists repeatedly. Boxing is . Men fight, and love it, and often kill each other. Big money is made because people love to watch. And that is life. That's just the way it is.

This is a short, intense, controlled, continuous essay on boxing. Oates has done her homework; there are plenty of stats and memories of weird historical bouts. She speaks as both an expert and a fan, and at first invites comparison with two men who wrote on boxing, A. J. Liebling and Norman Mailer. Liebling, who made a living at it, had in his vocabulary 8,800 ways to distinguish between varying shades of black and brown fighters. Oates dismisses him as something of a racist airhead. Mailer, on the other hand, she quotes, and perhaps makes a mistake in doing so, because his account of the death of Benny Paret, "trapped in the ropes as referee Ruby Goldstein stood frozen, unable to interfere," contains some of the most elegant writing in this book: "Paret died on his feet. As he took those 18 punches, something happened to everyone who was in psychic range of the event. Some part of his death reached out to us. . . ."

But (if I read correctly here), Joyce Carol Oates is not interested at all in style or elegance in these pages. She mentions Liebling and Mailer out of conscientiousness or courtesy, reminding her readers that of course she knows their work. Her real associates in this enterprise are Roman Polanski and John Gregory Dunne: Polanski insisted and insisted that our world was a world of violence even before his wife, Sharon Tate, was attacked by the Manson gang. Dunne recently observed in Esquire that, as far as violent death is concerned, there had been a correlation--and perhaps it was just a coincidence--between what he wrote, and what had happened to people he knew.

This is why reading Oates' "On Boxing" can be either like a head-on collision or a roller-coaster ride or a domestic argument. If you completely dismiss her world view, put into words here by Frank "The Animal" Fletcher: "I hate to say it but it's true--I only like it better when the pain comes," then blamp. It's a collision. You won't want to read this book. If you agree with Oates and heavyweight contender Mike Tyson that this is a world where "I try to catch my opponent on the tip of his nose because I try to punch the bone into his brain," then this book will be a roller-coaster ride with the wheels greased with blood. And you'll have all the added attractions of the intellectual life to play with. Reading this will be like going out on a date with Catherine the Great.

But you may have doubts about the real nature of our world. You may see something incredibly sad about Sugar Ray Robinson's remark, "I ain't never liked violence." Or you may almost agree with Oates' statement that boxing "is primitive, too, as birth, death and erotic love might be said to be primitive, and forces our reluctant acknowledgment that the most profound experiences of our lives are physical events--though we believe ourselves to be, and surely are, essentially spiritual beings," until you remember: Wait a minute! Birth, death, erotic love and boxing are all physical, but only one of those activities involves two people bashing each other on purpose to inflict pain, for money, and until death, if necessary.

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