In 1920s America, when professional wrestling is in its dying years as a serious sport, one high-stakes contest brings together athletes, gangsters, and long-suffering women in this fine debut.
Five years after the embarrassing loss of his lightweight wrestling crown, Pepper Van Dean gets booted from the lousy traveling-carnival job he turned to for survival. His only option is a dubious deal with a former training partner and a Chicago gang leader who were both tied to his last professional defeat. The deal gets more complicated, as Pepper must train Garfield Taft, a charismatic athlete who is also a black ex-convict married to a white woman and hoping for a shot at the reigning white heavyweight wrestling champion. Such a match is unlikely amid American racism and fears of another embarrassment after Jack Johnson’s grab of boxing’s heavyweight title, but it’s potentially lucrative. Then, while working out at a remote Montana lodge, Taft develops strange fainting spells and stranger marital problems. Canadian bootleggers arrive at the lodge with a shipment of booze to add another wrinkle. Back stories and subplots emerge and old wounds reopen as Dundas puts together a tightly woven piece of storytelling punctuated by some intriguing close-ups of wrestling when it was taken seriously. He will spring a penultimate twist that might not surprise many readers and a last one that’s a doozy with a demon ex machina even nastier than the mobsters. Centered on the sweet-tough relationship of Pepper and his card shark wife, Moira, and enriched by a wrestling history that contrasts sharply with today’s circus, the novel has the feel of noir but is rounder and richer than a Jim Thompson outing.
Dundas suggests writers known for loosely historical works, such as Doctorow and Chabon, but he features a pared-down, punchy style that goes well with his characters’ basic raw ambitions and emotions.