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Legend and hard truth slug it out

The Killings of Stanley Ketchel A Novel James Carlos Blake William Morrow: 312 pp., $25.95

July 25, 2005|James Sallis | Special to The Times

Among boxing fans, Stanley Ketchel is a legend, thought by many to be the greatest middleweight of all time: 49 knockouts in 64 fights with only four losses, lady's man and mama's darling, dapper, handsome and dead in 1910 at age 24 -- all of this reflected in James Carlos Blake's new novel, "The Killings of Stanley Ketchel."

Fans still debate what actually happened during his fabled bout with African American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. Was the fight fixed from the start, agreed upon as an exhibition match to end in a draw? Did Ketchel, outweighed by some 50 pounds, in the 12th round violate the agreement with a sneak punch? Did Johnson, after repeatedly failing to drop Ketchel with his blows, remark to his cornermen, "He ain't human"? And did Johnson really stand at ringside after the match casually picking Ketchel's teeth from his glove?

Stanley Ketchel's end is just as enigmatic. Having more or less retired and relocated to a ranch in Missouri, he was shot by his hired hand as he sat down to breakfast one morning. Depending on who told the tale and when, Ketchel had made love to the hired hand's wife, also in his employ, or Ketchel had raped her, or she, a onetime prostitute, had made a play for him.

Perhaps, though, he had only made scandalous remarks to the woman. Or perhaps she was not the hired hand's wife but his girlfriend, whom Ketchel also had been courting.

The very stuff of legend. Add to it that Ketchel's life was early enshrouded in tissues of prevarication. Born Stanislaus Kiecal, he became Stanley Ketchel, "the Michigan Assassin," as he rose to public attention -- another small part in this vast reinvention that was America.

Public relations of that day depicted him in Western dress, making much of a supposed orphan upbringing and an authentic hobo past, tapping into the Horatio Alger cant then so prevalent. Later, the press, ever alert to new models of the rank American, leaned heavily on his womanizing and arrogance.

Legends, of course, are useful lies, lies that attempt to wrest some kind of "truth" from the circumstance and chaos of our lives, something that may endure long enough to help us survive. Legend -- as Jack London says of tragedy during one of his walk-ons in Blake's 10th novel -- "feeds the heart's rebellion against the tyranny of the inevitable." Novels being lies as well, of course, though at their best also useful.

Blake understands better than most the violence upon which our country was founded and upon which it thrives. In book after book -- "Handsome Harry," "A World of Thieves," "Under the Skin" -- he points up the many ways in which the image of the frontiersman has become our most enduring, sometimes useful and often dangerous myth, an unbreachable part of the American psyche. Eruptions of Puritan instinct aside, we are all long riders.

Blake's telling of Ketchel's story is spare, leisurely and nonjudgmental, couched mostly in unremarkable, workmanlike language. All the major landmarks are here: the early matches; the pivotal ones with Jack O'Brien, Billy Papke and Johnson; Ketchel's days of living large; his relationship with his family.

There is little internality, and one's impression of Ketchel is exactly what he must have been: an uneducated, parochial young man bedazzled by the riches and opportunities that came to him. Like the hedgehog in philosopher Isaiah Berlin's fable, he knew one thing and knew it well: how to fight. And much of the rest of the world was a blur.

"Authenticity" is a word that often occurs to me as I read James Carlos Blake. He knows what lurks just around the next street corner, knows what lies in wait at the undredged bottoms of our hearts. The hand he lifts, the stories he tells -- as with all great writing -- point always back into the caverns of ourselves, where we are blessed and condemned to live.

*

James Sallis is the author of many books, including the forthcoming novels "Drive" and "Cripple Creek."

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