Adrift in Alaska, a young man confronts his past and seeks direction by competing in a barroom boxing show in Juneau.
In his second memoir, Coffin (Creative Writing/Univ. of New Hampshire; A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, 2008) interrogates his close but conflicted bond with his father and his mythical ideals of masculinity. The author was a year out of college when he impulsively embarked on a solo kayaking journey from the San Juan Islands in Washington to Sitka, Alaska. There, he landed a job tutoring at a local high school. One evening, he met and sparred with Victor, a local boxing legend and coach. As Victor recognized the author’s innate toughness, he encouraged him to enlist in a boxing event called Roughhouse Friday. Through these physically demanding, adrenaline-soaked matches, under Victor’s expanding influence, Coffin began to unleash a long-suppressed rage, mainly directed toward his father but also against the subtle bigotry he experienced as the child of a white American father and a Thai mother. His father, a military psychologist, left his mother and their two children in Maine while Coffin was still a young boy and started a new family. The author’s anger toward his father, though intently explored, feels somewhat unprocessed; there’s a raw nerve left under the surface that the author may address in future writing. The strength of the narrative derives from Coffin’s vivid and perceptive accounts of the boxing matches and the participants, each with varying boxing abilities and their own individual scores to settle. “Even the most raw, unskilled bouts,” writes the author, “when watched with any empathy at all for the people in them, reveal a tender story about each fighter: what they are made of, who they are, what sadness they carry, what joy….I sometimes found myself leaving the ring feeling numb and dull while, on other occasions, I went back to my corner on the verge of confused tears.”
A compelling story of small-town boxing in Alaska and a complex examination of masculine identities.