Reviews

Pound for Pound by F.X. Toole

Mary McCoy

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.


Pound for Pound

Publisher: Ecco
Length: 366
Price: $25.95
Author: F.X. Toole
US publication date: 2006-08
Amazon

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

Ivy Mix's 'Spirits of Latin America' Evokes the Ancestors

A common thread unites Ivy Mix's engaging Spirits of Latin America; "the chaotic intermixture between indigenous and European traditions" is still an inextricable facet of life for everyone who inhabits the "New World".

Film

Contemporary Urbanity and Blackness in 'New Jack City'

Hood films are a jarring eviction notice for traditional Civil Rights rhetoric and, possibly, leadership -- in other words, "What has the Civil Rights movement done for me lately?"

Books

'How to Handle a Crowd' Goes to the Moderators

Anika Gupta's How to Handle a Crowd casts a long-overdue spotlight on the work that goes into making online communities enjoyable and rewarding.

Music

Regis' New LP Reaffirms His Gift for Grinding Industrial Terror

Regis' music often feels so distorted, so twisted out of shape, even the most human moments feel modular. Voices become indistinguishable from machines on Hidden in This Is the Light That You Miss.

Reviews

DMA's Go for BritElectroPop on 'The Glow'

Aussie Britpoppers the DMA's enlist Stuart Price to try their hand at electropop on The Glow. It's not their best look.

Film

On Infinity in Miranda July's 'Me and You and Everyone We Know'

In a strange kind of way, Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know is about two competing notions of "forever" in relation to love.

Music

Considering the Legacy of Deerhoof with Greg Saunier

Working in different cities, recording parts as MP3s, and stitching them together, Deerhoof once again show total disregard for the very concept of genre with their latest, Future Teenage Cave Artists.

Music

Joshua Ray Walker Is 'Glad You Made It'

Texas' Joshua Ray Walker creates songs on Glad You Made It that could have been on a rural roadhouse jukebox back in the 1950s. Their quotidian concerns sound as true now as they would have back then.

Music

100 gecs Remix Debut with Help From Fall Out Boy, Charli XCX and More

100 gecs' follow up their debut with a "remix album" stuffed with features, remixes, covers, and a couple of new recordings. But don't worry, it's just as blissfully difficult as their debut.

Television

What 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Taught Me About Unlearning Toxic Masculinity

When I first came out as trans, I desperately wanted acceptance and validation into the "male gender", and espoused negative beliefs toward my femininity. Avatar: The Last Airbender helped me transcend that.

Interviews

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi Remake "I Am the Antichrist to You" (premiere + interview)

Nu Deco Ensemble and Kishi Bashi team up for a gorgeous live performance of "I Am the Antichrist to You", which has been given an orchestral renovation.

Playlists

Rock 'n' Roll with Chinese Characteristics: Nirvana Behind the Great Wall

Like pretty much everywhere else in the pop music universe, China's developing rock scene changed after Nirvana. It's just that China's rockers didn't get the memo in 1991, nor would've known what to do with it, then.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.