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Pugilist at Rest

September 15, 2002|DANIEL HALPERN | Daniel Halpern is editorial director of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, and the co-founder and editor of Antaeus.

As an editor, I know that every now and again a book will come in that I am going to buy whatever it takes, because that's why I'm an editor: to publish and share with others those books I can't live without, books that justify, in my case, 30 years in publishing.

I received "Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner" on a coolish day in mid-October 1999, a first collection of short stories by an unknown boxing "corner man" born in Long Beach and raised in Gardena, closing in on his 72th birthday. I took the manuscript with me on my two-hour commute from New York to my home in Princeton, N.J., late that day, and by the time I reached Newark, the first stop, I knew this was such a book. I pulled out my Nokia and called Nat Sobel, the author's agent, and made my offer. A brief but passionate book auction ensued, and by the time I arrived home, Ecco had the collection.

Its author was a man known as F.X. Toole. F.X. died earlier this month of complications following heart surgery. At 70, F.X. had written his first book, not that he hadn't been writing for the last 40 years. His was a good it's-never-too-late story about a man who lived to write (among other things), far beyond the world of reward. And what a collection of stories it is, less about boxing than about lives lived on the edge, the edge he chose to tread.

His son Gannon called me to tell me his dad had died. It was hard to believe. I thought F.X. would live another 20 years, so tough a guy was he in so many ways. F.X. wasn't even his real name (he thought it would embarass his boxers to know their trainer wrote books), but it's what the reading world knows him by, and it was who he was to me. I could tell you his real name now--because it doesn't matter anymore--but I guess I'm not going to because he'd fire me (from heaven) as his friend and editor if I did. F.X. was unbending when it came to issues such as trust and loyalty. He's what my grandmother Sadie called "one of ours," by which she meant a man who lived by the law he laid down for himself.

In fact, F.X. was an unusually unyielding author, friend and presence in the world. Every word he placed on the page mattered to him, and its loss (as in an editorial "delete") could send him into a rage, but his sense of humor was winning, if expensive: A pugilist at heart, he was quick to strike out at anything that might get in his way. Once, when he was on tour for Ecco, his plane to San Francisco was delayed because of weather. He called me at midnight, East Coast time, to let me know that the penalty for such a delay (wasn't this an act of God, even for an Irish Catholic?) was a new leather jacket, purchased, at our expense, on Market Street.

His stories leave you a different person, especially (not ironically) if you don't care about boxing, because this man's life was a life of the soul, and he lived it, not to be repetitive, on the edge. Here's a brief observation of his: "When I'm writing, I can get blown up, blown up to the ceiling. The muse taps you on the shoulder and it's love at first sight; if you don't follow, you look at yourself like a punk." In the few years that I had the good fortune of knowing him, he never punked, nor pulled a punch.

F.X. was a remarkable man and an amazing writer. If you weren't blessed with his acquaintance, you are blessed with the stories he left for you (see "The Monkey Look" or "Million $$$ Baby"), which invoke the life he led and believed in, which he most dearly wanted to share with you, his new, if lately found, readers.

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