Tuesday, 27 July 2010


When I was on Radio 4's Open Book back in May discussing boxing fiction (check that out here); the discussion's hook was the publication of Carver Boyd. In Hauser's novel, the nameless hero is a white college student who works his way up to challenge for the heavyweight championship of the world. In other words, he's a more articulate Rocky, and this is a fantasy novel even more than in the sense that most sports stories are ultimately wish fulfillment fantasies, of victory, of success. This contains those elements, but goes far beyond them too.

In fact, there are a lot of familiar elements, and not just from boxing stories or the real world of boxing. Hauser has written one of the best books on Muhammad Ali (His Life And Times) and other good books about the sport, whose point of view can be gleaned from titles like A Beautiful Sickness. He's also written widely outside the field, with a definite romantic edge. He's well read within the field, and out of it, but there isn't a lot in his own fantasies that's very new. It was telling in our Open Book discussion that Prof. Kasia Boddy brought up Jack London's tales of women watching, or waiting, while their men box, because Melissa, the educated woman who's seen him fight, is a construct with fewer dimensions than London's turn-of-the-last-century women, and immediately after the hero meets her, he asks us: 'How do you respond when a woman who's more beautiful than any fantasy you've ever had comes up to you on the street and says "you're the fighter"?'

The echoes of Love Story and the admission of fantasy aren't surprising, since the love story here is two dimensional if not second-hand. Indeed, they could be seen as ironic in a very subtle way. But not when you consider his response to Melissa: 'that's one way of defining me', which is certainly a fantasy response for any boxer in this world, but more to the point sums up the book's central failing, its point of view.

Hauser has certainly been influenced by W.C. Heinz's The Professional, still as great a boxing novel as has ever been written. As I mentioned in my recap of the Open Book discussion, The Professional is narrated by a magazine writer, thus it's point of view is that of the erudite observer, and the voice of the people within the world of boxing contrasts with the narrator's, and one of the book's points is that it is no less accurate, and truthful, and in fact may be moreso. But Carver Boyd is told in the first person, which means the boxer himself is given a point of view which all too often turns obviously into Hauser's own, and there is a far greater distance between him and the world on which he reports. The boxer narrator is far too mature, far too erudite, far too ominsicent for the boxer character; he is in effect Hauser, just as Heinz's narrator was Heinz, but Heinz was a journalist and Hauser isn't a boxer.

It makes some sense, because the villains in the story are Boyd, the reigning heavyweight champ, described as a more violent successor to Mike Tyson, but obviously his clone, and Boyd's promoter, Vernon Jack, just as obviously Don King, and the explanations of the backroom dealings need to be told by a journalist--if their resolution, a victory of sorts over the Don King figure in terms of future promoting, seems even more fantastical than our hero's romance! Where the first person works best is in its description of the fight itself, which is always one of the tests of boxing writers. Like the fights themselves, a good account can enthrall even the most neutral observer, the human drama is just too great. And when it is the fighter narrating it, it carries even more immediacy, and is easily the book's strongest selling point. But when you're that good at writing your boxing with close-up accuracy, it reveals the abject fantasy of the rest the book even more starkly.

In that sense, Hauser is his own worst enemy. I wondered if he was consciously seeking to be inspirational, attract the Mitch Albom, Saturdays With Morrie crowd, or whether this was simply a paean to a lost time in boxing, before the Kings and Tysons. Perhaps when it was more white. His anonymous hero in that context could be seen as an amalgam of Gentleman Jim Corbett, Jim Jeffries, and James Braddock. He really should have been named Jim.

No comments :