REVIEW: The Fighter by Craig Davidson
Dear Mr. Davidson:
The literary blog world (and NY gossip blogs) were alive a few weeks ago with the boxing match between yourself, a relatively new author, and established literary heavyweight, Jonathan Ames. This event, so curiously outside my realm of gentle romance stories (tongue in cheek, ladies, tongue in cheek), spurred me to read more about the match and the writers. I ended up reading your blog and a piece you did for nerve.com on *gasp* impotency. The blog entries and the nerve.com piece showed a gentleman who was self effacing and humorous. I thought I might reach outside my boundaries and try this book, The Fighter, that seemed to be driving the male literary community to don its gloves and enter the ring in an effort to prove their collective masculinity.
The Fighter is ambitious. It tries hard, and like a good prize fighter, manages to land a solid punch during the course of the prose, but there are misses as well. The quotable portion of the book is that “a man’s body is the map of his existence.” The story is about two young men, one rich, one poor, who both use the underworld of boxing to discover themselves.
Paul is a privileged young man whose parents established one of the earliest and most successful wineries in Canada. If necessity is the mother of invention then privilege is the father of waste. Paul wastes his life away by coming in late to his non job at the winery, squiring around semi-pretty daughters of his father’s business acquaintances, and generally being an ass. The beginning of the book sees Paul taunting another young man at the bar, a man that Paul envisions lying drunkenly in his trailer surrounded by empty and crushed beer cans. The challenged young man proceeds to take his physical strength to answer Paul’s disdain. He beats Paul within an inch of his life, leaving Paul’s teeth like “rock salt…spread across the wet sidewalk.”
Paul then enters the world of undercover fighting where, like Mad Max’s thunderdome, often two men enter and only one man leaves. There in the dank basements and warehouses and sheds that serve as the grounds for physical punishment, Paul finds something that speaks to him. The brutality which was inflicted upon him serves as a marker by which Paul begins to measure worth.
Rob, only 16, is the future upon which his father and uncle’s dreams rest. It is believed by his family that his hands will take him out of poverty. Rob fights, not because he loves it, but because he is laboring under the weight of his family’s expectations. Tommy, his uncle, is the relief that no one sees clearly. Tommy is a damaged boxer who took one too many shots to his head. He’s mentally and physically slow. He is what Rob could be, the dark side of the boxing career. No one recognizes this and in every scene sweet Tommy appears, the harbinger warbles of what boxing could mean for this boy, Rob. What is worse, is that Rob fears not so much injury to his own person, but the ones he inflicts upon others. He fears his dark side while Paul attempts to find his and embrace it.
Paul and Rob’s parallel paths intersect, providing the penultimate climax. It is this scene which purportedly provides the answers to the question that they both seek. While Rob comes away with some resolution in his life, Paul does not.
Sadly Paul is nowhere near to self realization at the end of the end of the book as he was at the beginning. If The Fighter is a coming of age story for Paul, the journey for us readers is stalled somewhere in the middle. Paul’s self discovery is that his value as a man comes from his ability to physically dominate. He has learned nothing of himself. Wealth was the measure of success before the beating and physicality the measure of it after. Paul, to me, is a man who will never be satisfied, who will always be searching, for the next fulfillment, the next answer and will always be lost.
There were a couple of motifs that I thought were contradictory to each other. Both Paul and Rob at one point refer to their ancestors. The words “stock” were both used, seeming to imply that it is the past that makes the future. Paul looks at his father and sees a man who has not been able to shake off his humble roots despite all the outward trappings of wealth. If the man’s body is the map of his existence, is it free will or predetermination that charts the course? Maybe the message was intentionally contradictory. But it seems that you either can remake yourself or you can’t. Your “stock” either sets your course or you become what you make yourself to be, regardless of the stock.
To some this might read like a grown up version of the The Dangerous Book for Boys where males reclaim their physical dominance over their own world. I have some sense that a male reader would respond differently and I can see how the literary men in this world see Davidson’s book as a challenge.
As a woman, though, I thought of the Johnny Cash song “Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” and see a dismal and unhappy ending for those who live by their fists instead of their wit. Of course, this is my own value judgment projected onto the book but the ending leaves me a bit hollow as I believe Paul has learned nothing through the course of his journey. Having said that, it still is a provocative story with rich characters. The underworld of boxing comes alive in all its wretched glamour. I see this as a book that men would love, embrace. Just don’t be surprised if some of them start challenging their neighbors. B-.
I had to call four bookstores before I found a copy of this book so you may have to order it.