Pound for Pound
by F.X. Toole
Published by Ecco
384 pages, 2006
Requiem for a Heavyweight Writer
Reviewed by David Abrams
Boxing and writing have at least one thing in common: only a fool with hope in his heart would climb into a ring to be repeatedly punched in the face or send off a manuscript to publishers only to get socked by rejection after rejection. Pugilists and novelists quickly learn two truths: you have to go the distance if you want to rise to the top; and it's the beatings you take along the way that make you tougher.
F. X. Toole was a fool for boxing and writing, coming to both of them in mid-life when he was, admittedly, a boozer and a ladies' man. His life was the stuff of hard-knuckled machismo, ripped from the pages of Hemingway. Prior to turning pugilist and scribe, he worked as a cabbie, cement truck driver, bartender and bullfighter (he was gored three times before he gave up his Sun Also Rises adventure). He had a chunk of one ear bitten off in a street fight (and, no: Mike Tyson was nowhere around at the time).
Toole grew up listening to the fights on the radio. Madison Square Garden was his Camelot, sluggers like Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey were his knights in shining muscles. So, it was only natural when, looking for something new to try, he stepped into the ring. The lean, gray-haired man earned wary respect from the other gym rats, which soon turned to admiration when he didn't quit after the first day of sparring bouts.
"So there I was, didn't know squat from boxing," he'd later write. "Was slapping rather than punching, on my heels instead of toes, sticky instead of slick. But I sparred with eighteen- and twenty-year-old beginners anyhow. Had teeth cracked and inlays fall out. I got hit more than I should have, because without my glasses I couldn't see the shot coming, but I did okay for an old man. The spell was cast."
Eventually, he was forced to quit sparring when he got braces to correct a jaw condition. But, as he says, he was already under the spell. He started working ringside as a cut man (one who plugs the flow of blood between rounds), a corner man and a trainer.
"About the only thing I haven't done in boxing is make money .... But that hasn't stopped me any more than not making money in writing has. Both are something you just do, and you feel grateful for being able to do them, even if both keep you broke, drive you crazy, and make you sick. Rational people don't think like that. But they don't have in their lives what I have in mine. Magic."
His real name was Jerry Boyd, but to keep his writing career a secret from his boxing buddies, he used a pen name, a mix of the actor Peter O'Toole and the 16th-century Jesuit saint Francis Xavier. Then finally it happened. Toole sold a story, caught the eye of an agent and soon had a six-figure book deal. His collection of short stories, Rope Burns, was published when he was 70 years old, after 40 years of writing stories and collecting rejection slips. Critics immediately started comparing him to Hemingway, Mailer and Faulkner. In the writing world, we call that a TKO; at his age, it was nothing short of a miracle full of sentiment and uplift. If anyone ever makes a film of Toole's life, there won't be a dry eye in the house.
Especially when we get to the end.
F. X. Toole died on September 12, 2002, of complications resulting from heart surgery. He didn't live long enough to see two of his stories turned into an Academy-Award-winning movie, Million Dollar Baby. Toole knew he had a bum ticker and that it was only a matter of time. He'd been working on a novel and, when he knew he'd have to go into the hospital for surgery, he took his laptop with him, desperate to make a final push to the end of the story. He fell short of the finish line, but he bequeathed 900 pages of chapters and fragments to his children and agent. Out of that stack of papers came Pound for Pound, what he hoped would be his magnum opus of boxing literature.
I never met F. X. Toole (though -- full disclosure -- he and I share the same literary agent). If I had, I've no doubt his handshake would have been "as gentle as a nun's," as he once wrote about a boxer's hands. His prose had that same kind of dichotomy -- the sentences could smack you with a hard uppercut, then in the next instant make you cry at their tenderness. F. X. Toole knew about the inner clockwork mechanism we call the heart. His characters might be hard, stoic men gambling on one last shot at a championship, but their emotional centers were tenderized meat. As James Ellroy writes in his introduction to Pound for Pound, Rope Burns was "savage and melancholy, and somehow heartbreakingly sweet."
Most of the world still doesn't know Toole's name, but many of them might recognize his words -- the bulk of Morgan Freeman's narration in Million Dollar Baby was lifted straight from the pages of Rope Burns.
Toole wrote about boxing like John Wayne rode a horse, knowing precisely how to sit easy and go with the flow of words about blood, broken bones and shattered hearts. He didn't waste time with fluffy, writerly bullshit. He got right to the point. Take a look at the first lines of two of his stories: "I stop blood" ("The Monkey Look") and "Boxing is an unnatural act" ("Million $$$ Baby"). His descriptions of people came at us in equally tough, concise images -- one shady character's eyes are "colder than a dead Eskimo dick."
In Toole's world of boxing, second-rate fighters have to eat in third-rate hotel buffets with "hot dogs and dried-out fish and chicken fried near to black. Cold pork chops all bone and fat. Food be dead." If the fighters and trainers in Toole's stories get breaks, it's less through luck than through hard work, determination and downright deception. His are the people who've been kicked and pushed aside, yet still have a scrappy spirit.
As Ellroy puts it, Toole wrote "from the inside out" -- not just from inside the boxing ring, but from within the hearts of men battered by tragedy and disappointment.
So it is in the pages of Pound for Pound, the tale of Dan Cooley, former lightweight champion-turned garage owner-turned boxing trainer living in L.A. Like the majority of Toole's characters, Cooley is a tough son of a bitch, but he's also got a sentimental streak, especially when it comes to his grandson, a lad he takes under his wing and teaches the science of the punch -- not unlike Maggie Fitzgerald in Million Dollar Baby. Just when the novel is getting as cheery as the end of a Rocky Balboa movie, a tragic accident snaps the mood and Cooley turns hard and bitter.
In Cooley's darkest hour, when grief stabs him in the heart then twists the knife, Toole describes how the scarred, ex-fighter reels from the blow: "Dan gagged, nausea rising, pain flooding his chest. His hand went to his battered eye. He tried to die, but couldn't."
Meanwhile, we've been introduced to another character, Eduardo "Chicky" Garza, a young contender from Texas who is being cheated by promoters and trainers in the amateur circuit. Chicky knows he needs a better trainer, someone to show him footwork and the timing of punches, but he's tied down by responsibility to his drug-addicted grandfather, himself a former boxing legend named The Wolf.
Toole alternates chapters between Cooley and Chicky, bringing them closer together all the time, until eventually they meet and Pound for Pound turns into an inevitable story of hope and redemption.
Throughout, Toole follows that old author's axiom: "Write what you know." Here's a typical passage from a welterweight tournament that shows not only Toole's encyclopedic knowledge of boxing, but also his skill at explaining the sport with an economy of words:
The bell rang, and he charged from the corner like a mini Mike Tyson, but Farrell pivoted out of the way. When Sykes came around, Farrell hit him with a quick right-left-right combination that knocked Sykes down, his first trip to the canvas ever. He tasted blood from a cut lip and began to shake. Mortified that a white boy had knocked him down, he let loose a high, keening wail that bounced off the hard walls. The crowd keened back. He took the mandatory eight count on his feet, and roared back at Farrell, who continued to pepper him with jabs. Sykes tried to wrestle him down at one point, and the ref was there to step in and penalize Sykes with a one-point deduction. The crowd hooted at Sykes and went into a frenzy of whistles and spit.
I haven't been this awestruck by fight scenes since the time in 1980 when I sat in a darkened theater and recoiled as Robert DeNiro punched the camera and blew sweat on the lens.
Like most novels interrupted by their author's death (The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway, etc.), Pound for Pound has a fog of melancholy hanging over it even before you finish reading the first page. Just knowing the story was left unfinished and unsettled in the author's mind, you find yourself full of what ifs and could have beens. What we hold in our hands is, from the get-go, less than perfect, a gem still waiting for the author to polish it or discard it as a flawed work.
There are certainly flaws and problems with Pound for Pound. Toole can be tediously scientific with the fight scenes, some of the dialogue is unabashedly corny, and there is still some flab from the 900 pages that needs to be trimmed. I often found myself tearing up while reading the book, not so much at the tale's sad turn of events, but over the fact that I wished God had given Toole another year, or even just six months, to live and finish the book properly.
But everyone dies -- most of us in mid-sentence -- and we readers can only go with what we've got in front of us. Pound for Pound is an unfinished symphony but it's still worth our while. You can see the heart of F. X. Toole on every page: his earnest, urgent writing that is so full of raw honesty.
It's an ambitious work spanning three generations of males who persevere through personal tragedy, corruption, deceit, self-doubt and thoughts of suicide -- all of it played out against the arid landscape of the Southwest. Toole's reach here is deeper and broader than in his short stories. It's easy to see how the story and characters ballooned to 900 pages.
Even though it falls short in the long run, there are many moments when Toole is right on the mark. In the parlance of boxing, this is a writer who knew how to throw his shoulders forward with the punch, rocking and rotating his weight from his left foot to his right foot in a light shuffle dance. Toole made the hard grind of writing look easy on the page. He wrote like a butterfly and stung like a bee. | July 2006
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.