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Down for the Count in New Orleans : THE KNOCKOUT ARTIST by Harry Crews (Harper & Row: $17.95; 256 pp.)

May 22, 1988|Winston Groom | Groom is the author of "Forest Gump," just released in paper by Berkley Books

Eugene Biggs, the protagonist of Harry Crews' latest novel, is a washed-up professional boxer from a dirt-poor Georgia farm who is abandoned by his manager in New Orleans and forced to wait tables for a living. His glass jaw is so tender, in fact, that he's developed the unusual ability to actually knock himself out with one punch, a feat he now performs to earn extra money from people whose sexual hang-ups are tuned in to this sort of thing.

During one of his performances at a New Orleans mansion sponsored by a man called "Oyster Boy," who entertains himself by crawling around naked on a leash held by a 400-pound assistant named Purvis, Biggs meets a transvestite prostitute called Jake.

Biggs is taken with Jake, although she is an avowed lesbian, but does not pursue the matter because he has recently been taken in by a beautiful, wealthy woman from Houston who elicits personal information from him during sex acts for the ostensible purpose of writing her Ph.D. dissertation in psychology.

Meantime, Biggs has become friends with another washed-up boxer called Pete, who beat him in his last bout and who now operates the movie projector in a theater that shows "snuff" films in which real people are actually murdered alive on screen. Pete is in love with Tulip, a heroin addict who supports her habit by doing nasty things with a teddy bear in front of live audiences.

Having so far digested this interesting cast of characters, the reader is tempted to ask, "Where is this story going?" He is soon to find out. Biggs is asked to give one of his "knockout" performances in private at the culmination of a sex act between a local politician wearing a stocking mask and an unknown female. Upon his recovery, Biggs discovers that the woman is Jake, the lesbian who is also a hooker. Jake informs him that his presence is desired by none other than "Oyster Boy," the dog-leash homosexual who in reality is a fantastically wealthy businessman called J. Alfred Blasingame.

Blasingame, it seems, wishes to own a real professional fighter and wants Biggs to find one and manage him for a healthy fee. Biggs hauls his friend Pete out of the snuff movie projection booth and together they locate a semiliterate Cajun boy named Jacques who might just be the next heavyweight champion of the world.

At this point, it seems like we're headed for a "Rocky" twist to this tale, but that is not to be. Jacques has everything a fighter needs: speed, strength, killer instinct and determination. He trains hard, does what he's told, but just before his first big bout, we learn that Pete has sold out to Blasingame's perversities and is crawling around with him on the floor naked while poor Tulip has gone back to the heroin habit she supposedly kicked. If that's not enough, Biggs breaks into the locked files of his girlfriend Charity and discovers not only that she's planning to use him for a guinea pig in her psych experiment, but that in fact she's also been kicked out of school. And to cap it all, Jake's black lesbian lover, who speaks frequently of cutting people up with a razor, sends Biggs to a house where he finds Jake and Charity naked together in bed. This tops it off for Biggs, who buys a pickup truck and heads back to the red-dirt Georgia farm.

Crews has created some pretty colorful characters here, and there is often a comic sense to his writing. The dialogue is lively, and he has captured parts of New Orleans nicely. In another time, this might have been "The Grapes of Wrath" or "The Harder They Fall," but with all the sexual, transsexual, homosexual, bisexual and pan-sexual antics going on, it is difficult to grasp the author's vision. Perhaps the message here is one of alienation and existential realism, but if so, it is a sad one, because there really isn't one morally elevating character in the whole book.

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