Another brooding and violent tale from Blake (Handsome Harry, 2004, etc.), this one about the boxer best known for almost besting Jack Johnson.
That was in 1909, and the opening chapter shows Ketchel’s and Johnson’s managers agreeing that the match will be a fake, staged to end in a draw so the fighters can make their real money on the rematch. Blake pulls no punches in his portrait of Ketchel, who comes across right away as a bigot and misogynist, offended by Johnson caressing his “bitch” white girlfriend. The story recalls the bleak work of such writers of the period as Stephen Crane and Frank Norris in its stark delineation of Stanley’s abusive father and the boy’s hardscrabble years as a hobo. (His first killing is a fellow vagrant who tries to rape him.) The level of violence only increases as Ketchel discovers his ability with his fists in Butte, Mont., where he makes his reputation inflicting maximum physical punishment—lavishly described—on anyone foolish enough to get into the ring with him. He’s left with even more rage to vent when his one true love shoots herself rather than suffer to the death with throat cancer. It’s all pretty grim, and despite the story’s compulsive readability, it seems for a while that what we’re being given is merely an exercise in sordid naturalism. But Blake slowly and skillfully softens our perception of Ketchel just enough so we can see his yearning for love and his passionate commitment to boxing. “Goddamit, you’re the greatest fighter I ever saw,” he finally admits to Johnson. Racism doesn’t stand a chance against the truth of what Ketchel experiences in the ring. Blinkered and brutal though he is, we begin to hope that Stanley will grow up and find some peace. But the author has warned us from the start that his flawed hero will meet a tragic end.
Hard-bitten, yet surprisingly moving.