The theme of masculinity and its discontents is the organizing principle of this terrific debut collection of nine tough-as-nails stories by a former collegiate boxer.
Understatement is Cavell’s game, and in its best moments his spare, confrontational prose reminds us of the young Hemingway. The volume gets off to a soaring start with “Balls, Balls, Balls,” a monologue spoken by a sporting-goods salesman and insecure macho man who bulks up his ego with fantasies of lethal violence, while considering self-improvement via Rogaine, pep pills, and penile enhancement. A similar voice is heard in “All the Nights of the World,” whose young narrator reluctantly endures a dinner date with his charismatic father (a former pro footballer) and his overly impressed girlfriend, and in the tense “Highway,” a deft anecdote set in a roadside diner where two fugitive murderers outwit a tired cop and wonder whether to add an ingenuous waitress to their kill. Cavell scores strongly with two stories about boxing: “Killing Time,” a nondescript sparring partner’s jaundiced view of his fighter’s cock-of-the-walk celebrity; and “The Ropes,” a moving portrayal of a brain-damaged young amateur (“the kid who almost got killed at the Golden Gloves”) trying and failing to feel his way back toward something approximating normal life. Even better are two blackly funny satires on embattled machismo. “The Death of Cool” features a paranoid insurance-claims investigator’s account of the many dangers lurking in the everyday, and the bizarre protective measures he takes. And the dazzling novella “Evolution” records its phlegmatic narrator’s progress toward becoming a contract killer. It’s a truly original tale, filled with characters animated by insane theories about human interaction and the survival of the fittest: they’re Darwinian survivalists, insulated with extra layers of attitude—as mordantly funny as they are casually inhuman.
This Rumble is a spectacle not to be missed. You’ll want a ringside seat.