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Ringside Seat

ROPE BURNS; By F.X. Toole; The Ecco Press: 272 pp., $23

September 10, 2000|WALTER BERNSTEIN | Walter Bernstein is a screenwriter and the author of "Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist," which has recently been reissued by Da Capo Press

The first stories about boxing that I remember came in a book with a red cover and nice big print. It was called "The Leather Pushers" and the author was H.C. Witwer. The size of the print was important because I had only recently learned to read. The book came with stills from the silent movie serial that was made from the stories; in the background you could see Clark Gable among the extras, although at the time I had no idea who he was. But knowing this had been a movie was what made the book really important. Later there was another boxing serial called "Fighting Blood," also from stories by Witwer. This starred Reginald Denny who was English, but that didn't matter because it was still silent and you could make up any accent you wanted. By that time, I was hooked on boxing with some help from my uncles. They would take me on Friday nights to the amateur card sponsored by the American Legion, of which they were faithful members. I remember the vast armory hall that muffled the sounds of the crowd and the hot white lights over the ring and a knockout artist named Eddie Benson whose fights ended so quickly that he rarely broke a sweat.

The first professional fighter who meant anything to me was named Soldier Bartfield. He was a favorite with my uncles because he was a fellow veteran from World War I. He was also Jewish, a source of pride when he won, unmentioned otherwise. But there were better Jewish fighters coming up at that time, usually lightweights or welterweights (Jews didn't grow bigger until later)--Sid Terris, Ruby Goldstein, Al Singer, Barney Ross and, of course, the matchless Benny Leonard. Fighters, then and now, came from the poor and disenfranchised; Mexicans in California, Poles and Swedes in Chicago, poor whites in the South, Jews, Irish and Italians in New York, blacks everywhere. You rooted by race and religion. Unfortunately, many of these classy Jewish fighters at one time or another met up with a tough Irish puncher named Jimmy McLarnen, who feasted on the discovery that many of them had glass chins. I hated McLarnen.

There has never been much good fiction about boxing. Most writers don't know enough about it; others never see the fact for the metaphor. Few of them give you the feeling of what it's like to hit and be hit, that it's a skill and an art, a profession and a business. That, like all professional sport, it is primarily about money. Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Irwin Shaw, Thom Jones have managed the trick with short stories. Joseph Moncure March wrote an overwrought narrative poem, "The Setup," that was later made into a movie. A few good novels come to mind: the bleak "Never Come Morning" by Nelson Algren, Budd Schulberg's "The Harder They Fall," Leonard Gardner's "Fat City," the neat "The Professional" by the sportswriter W.C. Heinz. There has been a lot of nonfiction, from William Hazlitt to A.J. Liebling to Joyce Carol Oates, all trying, some of them very hard, to find significance in two men determined to inflict damage on one another in a small, square ring.

Into this has stepped a welcome addition, F.X. Toole. Now 70 years old, he has produced "Rope Burns," a book of chillingly authentic short stories about fighters and fighting written from as far inside as you can get. Toole came to boxing, as to writing, late in life. In the middle of his 40s, turning his back on whatever other life he led, he walked into the dark wood of the fight world. He decided to learn how to be a fighter. As he describes himself in the introduction to his book, he had been a fan since childhood. "My father had been a fight fan and I loved him for making me a part of something he loved." What he found was "Magic, real magic, the real McCoy . . . the magic of going to wars I believe in . . . the magic of winning and losing in a man's game . . . the magic because it's a war you'll go back to every chance you get." Too old to become a professional fighter, Toole became a cut man, and there was "the magic of stopping blood that maybe another cut man couldn't." Everything about the fight game is magical to Toole; good and bad, honest or crooked, it is all magic to him. But when he says magic, what he really means is love.

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