RINGS: On the Life and Family of a Southern Fighter by Randolph Bates

RINGS: On the Life and Family of a Southern Fighter

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The discontinuous history of an extended black family from New Orleans, which, for lack of authorial perspectives, amounts to little more than a dreary recital of harsh truth. In 1979, Bates (Writing/Harvard) met the claws patriarch, Collis Phillips (then 70), at a New Orelans gym where the author had gone to learn boxing. In-your-face realities soon dashed Bates's prizefighting fantasies, but he became intrigued by the personable old trainer who had not discouraged him. Until Phillips died in 1989, Bates took a ringside seat at the Phillips family's rites of passage, learning much of their story. The father of six, Phillips had earned local celebrity as a club fighter during the Depression. While working as a trainer after WW II, though, he lost a leg as the result of a gunshot wound inflicted by an angry daughter--and he had scarcely better luck with his other children. One son committed suicide, and two others (including a middleweight contender) wound up sentenced to long terms in the Louisiana State Penitentiary. By and large, succeeding generations fared badly with either life or the law. Alcoholism, crime, divorce, drug addiction, illiteracy, jail, and menial jobs were the common denominators of their individual fates as fighting arenas, courtrooms, lockups, and public-housing projects circumscribed wasted lives that often ended in early graves. Here, Bates seems to believe that the mass of painful detail he has compiled, apparently at no small personal cost, speaks for itself. The accretion of grim particulars on essentially unsympathetic characters, however, soon becomes mind-numbing and, eventually, meaningless. Nor does it help that the author eschews interpretive commentary, engages in jolting time-shifts, and couples his own self-consciously literary style with intrusive attempts to reproduce the slurred speech of uneducated southern blacks. Although there's a certain interest to the overlong narrative's raw material, without any effort by Bates to shape it, the annals of the Phillips family are little more involving than matter-of-fact police reports.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1992
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"