There’s ample entertainment value in this rather desperately inventive second historical novel by the author of the highly praised debut tale Chang and Eng (2000).
This time, Strauss’s real-life subject is “Kid McCoy,” the welterweight boxer and confidence man whose duplicitous exploits paradoxically made his name synonymous with authenticity and honesty. His episodic story is told by a garrulous narrator whose identity is withheld until the closing pages (though many readers will surely guess it), and jumps back and forth between 1895, when the spindly Indiana youngster born Virgil Selby first drifts into prizefighting and “flimflammery,” and 1900, the year in which McCoy claims the welterweight title. In the hastily overstuffed final hundred pages, Strauss spells out the consequences of his antihero’s unsavory affiliation with grotesque Chinese con man Johnnie Gold (“a bush-league P.T. Barnum”), enduring obsession with his fiercely independent showgirl ex-wife Susan Fields, comeback bid (after losing his welterweight crown) in a challenge to heavyweight champion Gentleman Jim Corbett, and last-ditch attempt “to remake himself again” via “The Flimflam to End All Flimflams.” A lot of this works, because Strauss possesses a fluid, racy style and a knack for throwing quickly sketched colorful figures into the mix (e.g., veteran pug “Jabbing Jew” Joe Choinsky, H.L. Mencken–like reporter H.H. Measures, even nondescript fighter William York Tindall—who shares his name with an eminent Joyce scholar). President Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain make brief appearances, and Strauss’s re-creations of pugilistic spectacles and Tammany Hall political bloodbaths are acutely, amusingly detailed. The problem: too many of the boxing and flimflamming scenes are too similar, to the point of tedious redundancy. Even Strauss’s complex presentation of Selby/McCoy as a compulsive liar with very genuine immortal longings in him isn’t quite enough to make the chaos of colorful parts gel convincingly.
Not as good as Chang and Eng, then, but not bad at all. Strauss remains one of the most interesting and promising of younger American novelists.