BLACK AJAX by George MacDonald Fraser


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A rip-roaring fictional retelling of the story of black bare-knuckle prizefighter Tom Molineaux, an American freed slave who challenged England’s beloved heavyweight champion Tom Cribb in the early years of the 19th century. The same fractious energy that characterizes Fraser’s popular Flashman novels courses throughout this wonderfully flavorful tale, which, following a Prologue set in 1818 (Molineaux’s last year), presents the testimony of various “witnesses” to the fighter’s life and career as elicited by an unnamed “industrious inquirer.” The most voluble talkers are Thomas “Paddington” Jones and mulatto Bill Richmond, the “retired pugilists” who train and manage Tom; noted boxing journalist Pierce Egan (whose hyperbolic prose is expertly re-created); and especially Captain Buckley “Buck” Flashman (father of the better-known Harry), a good-natured rogue who charms all and sundry with mellifluous harangues about the exhilarating horrors of the Napoleonic Wars and the merry licentiousness of the good old days—and who’s equally capable of supervising Tom’s career and of betraying “his” fighter for a fast purse. Through their and several others’ memories of Tom’s progress up from slavery through conquest and celebrity to dissolution and untimely death, Fraser builds a stunning picture of his eponymous hero as a magnificent athlete destroyed by the temptations of fame, battling gamely even when “woozy wi’ daffy and collywobbles and half the strength drained out o’ him by a night’s fornicating”; and, even more impressively, of a Regency England characterized by “churches half-empty and hells packed full, fashion and frolic the occupations, and sport the religion.” It all races by so quickly that there’s scarcely time to savor the glorious period argot (much of it explained in a hilarious and helpful Glossary). You’d have to be dicked in the nob to dislike this book. It’s bloody marvelous.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-7867-0553-1
Page count: 256pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1998


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