A debut collection of six stories about the world of boxing, from an insider who finds beauty in its ugliness, sweetness in its savagery.
The title piece is a prime example: veteran trainer Mac McGee loves his young fighter, loves him for his talent and boundless willingness, but perhaps even more for the goodness as natural to him as the grace and power of his punches. Mac is white, “Puddin’” Pye, the boy, black, but from the day they met the relationship was transcendently father and son, color an irrelevance. The beginning of the story deals with that warmth and caring between them. A bit too predictably—nuance is not Toole's strength—the mood darkens, foreshadowing the kind of extravagant violence that links all six of the tales. In “Frozen Water,” a naïve country boy is beaten almost to death by a conscienceless bully. In “Million $$$ Baby,” a young woman boxer, sucker-punched by her treacherous opponent, has a freak fall and breaks her neck. “The Monkey Look” is about a fighter who's taken far too many merciless shots to the head and eyes. And so on. Worthwhile people suffer terrible punishment from no-goods, who often as not get away with it. In Toole's world, justice is at best an in and outer. He'd like it to be different, but this long-time, real-life corner man has stanched too much blood from too many illegal blows to believe in fantasy. Instead, he'll settle for the “magic” so vividly depicted here—the iron magic “of will, skill, and pain.”
Toole won't dazzle anyone with footwork, but there's a core of integrity to his fiction that can rivet a reader, patches of awkwardness notwithstanding. The wallop is in the details.