- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 19, 2004

MY FATHER’S FIGHTER

By Ronald K. Fried

Permanent Press, $24, 174 pages

REVIEWED BY REX ROBERTS

If you can imagine a novel about a glass-jawed, irritable-boweled, hypochrondriacal boxer introduced with an epigraph from Balzac, you’re the perfect reader for “My Father’s Fighter,” a melodrama about the sweet science.

Author Ronald Fried, who wrote “Corner Men: Great Boxing Trainers,” knows something about the fight game, although his first fictional effort involves a lot more sparring between friends and lovers than sanctioned pugilists.

At the opening bell, narrator Vincent Rosen is sucker-punched by fate. A 35-year-old English teacher at a posh private school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he spends his days teaching James Joyce to the privileged few until, by virtue of a last bequest, he inherits a light heavyweight named Mickey Davis.

Suddenly, Vincent finds himself in a sweaty gym in Brooklyn listening to the complicated aches and pains of a kvetching has-been, or more accurately, a never-was.

“With his crushed nose and puffy, scarred brow, Mickey looks almost too much like a fighter,” writes Mr. Fried, who is good at capturing the trappings of boxing, less so when evoking its actual mechanics. “He’s the young tough with a painful past who will die a hero or a lout. Either way, as those of us who have seen movies like this immediately know, the kid is doomed.”

Vincent clearly knows more about plot cliches than left hooks, putting him at a decided disadvantage with Mickey’s old-school trainer, Harry Gainesworth, and his mob-connected lawyer, Stewart Ross.

Nevertheless, he agrees to manage the fighter, mostly as a way of coming to terms with his estranged father, Solly, a garment-district businessman who indulged a fondness for gambling and steakhouses and other manly pursuits and venues.

“Perhaps he wanted me to get to know him posthumously,” muses Vincent, who nurtures a grudge against his largely absent dad. “So the sunny gloss on Solly is that in death he offered me an invitation to get to know him better, to become his son. A darker view tells me this is Solly’s way of flaunting a victory over me — the existence of a secret self.”

Vincent’s journey into his father’s world turns into a Balzacian nightmare. Harry immediately cons him out of a bigger cut of the purse, while promoter Bessie X. Knight ( “X” as in Malcolm) sizes him up as an easy mark.

Toward this end, she enlists the aid of a couple of hack sportswriters, who have no respect for the twee son of their old pal Solly, and two track-suited bookies, who want a piece of the action.

Mr. Fried has a pulp fictionist’s instinct for creating such characters, lending “My Father’s Fighter” a comic edge. Bessie, for instance, a pretty if meretricious woman, is distinguished by her spectacular derriere, which she carries with pride. “To Bessie, perhaps, the great monument that is her ass is an affirmation of her power,” writes Mr. Fried in his tongue-in-cheek tough-guy voice, “like a bullying mobster’s big belly.”

Predictably, Vincent finds his new hobby disrupting his personal as well as his professional life. His wife, Elizabeth, a successful doctor, doesn’t care for her husband’s growing notoriety, nor does his boss, Charles Miller, headmaster of the school where he teaches.

For Elizabeth, Vincent’s incompetence as a manager accents his lack of ambition, a long-standing source of friction in their marriage. For Charles, Vincent’s slumming in the tabloids is almost as bad as his participation in an activity he considers a felony, “two people inflicting genuine damage to each other as philistines watch.”

Vincent himself has mixed feelings about boxing. He likes Mickey, who is crude and selfish but also honest and open-hearted, and admires Harry, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport and cares about his fighters. Yet he remains aloof, not so much from feelings of superiority as from shyness, an inclination toward self-doubt, a natural deference — all habits of mind that distance him from life in general.

Then a well-placed bribe secures Mickey a bout with reigning champion “Nightstick” Johnson, and life confronts Vincent. Mickey uses the “n-word” at a press conference announcing the card, creating a controversy that sends his career, and Vincent’s, into crisis.

“My Father’s Fighter” is a short book, modest in scope, so it won’t do to reveal too much of the story. Mr. Fried isn’t a stylist, but he writes without pretension, which often is preferable. For a novel about boxing, however, the action is mostly metaphorical, our rope-a-dope narrator absorbing a flurry of rabbit punches and head butts from his thieving business partners, not to mention debilitating below-the-belt jabs by his own spouse.

The problem is, Vincent never hits back. Temperamentally incapable of defending himself, he embraces his fate stoically, one of the most passive protagonists ever to climb into the literary ring. Modern literature, which Vincent is fond of citing, is full of people unable or unwilling to act, and he blithely carries on the tradition.

“I like to think I enjoy Balzac because Balzac’s innocents are thoroughly crushed,” Vincent muses to himself at the end of the novel, evoking a bookish analogy in an effort to make sense of the arbitrary violence that closes “My Father’s Fighter.” “They end up ruined. The reader knows what’s coming, but keeps reading anyway … Whoever is the author of my fate — and it surely doesn’t feel like it’s me — has been less cruel.”

Vincent’s last lament appears to be a cri de coeur for his fighter, but in reality it’s another exercise in self-pity. He has lost his inheritance, endured heartache and witnessed death, yet remains unchanged.

He barely recognizes that his final speech reveals more about himself than about his father’s fighter — “mine, too,” he declares unconvincingly — suggesting he has learned little from his recent experiences. Given such an unsatisfactory ending, readers, like Mickey Davis, can’t be blamed for feeling cheated.

Rex Roberts is a writer, editor and graphic designer living in New York City.

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