[21 August 2006]
When F.X. Toole went into the hospital for heart surgery in 2002 with 900 pages of the unfinished manuscript that would become Pound for Pound, he said, “Doc, get me just a little more time, I gotta finish my book.” He didn’t get it.
Toole, whose real name was Jerry Boyd, was an unlikely writer with a resume that would have shamed Hemingway—bullfighter, cement truck driver, longshoreman, boxing trainer, and “cut man.” He published his first short story at the age of 70 after half a lifetime of rejection slips, and shortly thereafter, his first collection of short stories, two of which were the basis for the Academy Award-winning film, Million Dollar Baby.
His first book, Rope Burns, is a collection of brutal and graphic boxing stories, tempered by the moral universe of the ring and the code of honor lived out by its cast of fighters and trainers. In Rope Burns, Toole uses the natural narrative of the fight rather than imposing more conventional plots and arcs on his stories. As James Ellroy writes in his forward to Pound for Pound, “The World was the Fights and the Fights were the World ... The Fights were the fulcrum and the basis of all his notions of human drama.”
Nearly four years after his death, Toole’s unfinished novel has been released, “shaped for publication” by Nat Sobel and James Wade. While Pound for Pound is still very much about the world of the fights, it also ventures into new territory, offering a heartfelt and thoughtful exploration of the kinds of pain that men can endure outside the ring. As in Rope Burns, Toole deals heavily in the archetypes of the boxing world—the hungry young kid, the washed-up fighter turned trainer, villainous opponents and fight promoters—but what sets the characters in Pound for Pound apart is their suffering.
Dan Cooley is an auto mechanic and trainer on his way to rock bottom. As a young man, he was a promising boxer with Olympic dreams until a fight with Eloy “The Wolf” Garza crushed the bones around his eye socket, ending his career. Still, Cooley manages to find refuge in his family, his friend and business partner Earl Daw, and in training young fighters. When his children die tragic and untimely deaths, Cooley pulls himself together for the sake of his only grandson, Tim, and even finds joy again bringing the boy into his gym and teaching him to fight. But then, fresh from a semi-finals win at his first boxing tournament, Tim is hit by a van while buying ice cream. With his death, Cooley’s capacity for grief and loss finds its breaking point. Simultaneously bent on vengeance and death, Cooley drinks himself into oblivion, terrorizes the Chicana teenager who was driving the van that killed Tim, and concocts an elaborate suicide plot.
Cooley’s downward spiral unfolds against the rise of another promising young boxer, Chicky Garza. Raised by his grandfather, Cooley’s old nemesis Eloy, on a strawberry farm in rural Texas, Chicky helps run the farm and drives to San Antonio six days a week to work with his grandfather’s old trainers, the Cavazo brothers. Chicky has potential and single-minded discipline, but his loyalty to the Cavazo’s and their simplistic “tough is enough” training hinders his progress. As his challengers become more skilled and the wins come harder, Chicky realizes his limitations as a boxer and knows that being a hard-hitting Southpaw will only get him so far. In addition to their inability to help Chicky develop as a boxer, the Cavazo brothers are also dirty, with their fingers in fixed fights and drug peddling. Eloy, a dying alcoholic addicted to morphine, is powerless to help Chicky, but tells him to go to Los Angeles and find Dan Cooley.
While it is inevitable that the book’s two main characters meet, that Cooley should train the grandson of the man who ended his boxing career and lead him to greatness, this comprises a relatively small part of Pound for Pound. Chicky’s story is not about a young man’s rise to the top or a hometown boy who makes good. The struggle is the story, not the success. Navigating the corrupt world of the amateur and professional boxing circuits, Chicky quickly realizes that his toughest opponents are the promoters, backers, and trainers who deal behind the backs of fighters, setting some undeserving fighters up for life, and selling others down the river. Chicky may be a great boxer, or merely a good one, but only with a trustworthy and savvy trainer will he ever have the chance to find out which.
By the same token, Cooley’s story less about a washed up trainer’s second chance than it is about a modern day Job trying to decide if living is even half worth the suffering and loss that come with it. While the book builds towards Cooley’s decision to live or die, ultimately, what matters is the old man’s struggle with his God, and with his demons.
Pound for Pound isn’t a perfect book. Some characters veer dangerously close to idealizations of impossible nobility or villainy, and the book’s action is sometimes a bit too artfully choreographed. But oddly enough, it’s these same characteristics that make Pound for Pound so satisfying to read. Toole takes ordinary characters with unenviable lives and by idealizing them, gives their story epic qualities. Everyday joy, loss, and redemption become bigger than life, and as the threads from Cooley’s and Chicky’s back stories come together, everything fits just so, nothing left over or left dangling.
When Toole’s writing is at its best, however, chances are good that his characters are either in the gym or in the ring. Toole writes with the cool-handed precision of a surgeon through scenes raging with adrenaline, and emphasizes his fighters’ strategy as much as their raw power. Though his writing career was short, Toole’s body of work leaves behind a legacy in its understanding of how a sport so brutal, that takes much from its fighters and gives little, can be so beautiful. In Pound for Pound, it’s not hard to see how a life in the ring could become a salvation of sorts—a way of life, and a code to live by.