Rumble, Young Man, Rumble

by Benjamin Cavell

Published by Alfred A. Knopf

191 pages, 2003

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Hit Men

Reviewed by Charles Smyth


Benjamin Cavell's first book, Rumble, Young Man, Rumble, consists of nine balls-out short stories from the precincts of testosterone-charged American manhood. In this world, guys are obsessed with the status of their pecs, their fists, their dicks, their fears, their lies. It's David Mamet country inhabited by Thom Jones' rough-and-tumblers.

"Balls, Balls, Balls," the title of Cavell's opening story, is also the name of a sporting-goods store. Barry, the store's owner, and Logan, one of his employees, lift weights together at Size, their gym. During a workout, Barry mentions that he's bringing in an "expert" to train the store's paintball team. Logan, who's the team's best player, bristles at the news and demands to know what kind of expert. "You know -- an operator, a specialist, a mechanic," Barry explains. "Like a mercenary." This is not take-your-kids-and-have-fun paintball; indeed, it hardly qualifies as a game. Initiates call it MilSim -- military simulation -- and the professional trainer arrives for practice armed with a real Beretta automatic. The day's mission is mastering house-to-house assaults.

In "The Death of Cool," perhaps the most compelling story in this collection, an insurance claims adjuster is being overtaken by full-blown clinical paranoia. Cavell's description of the character's disintegrating personality, at once terrifying and fascinating, is rendered in mesmerizing, incremental detail:

I used to sleep with an aluminum baseball bat beside my bed. Saturday afternoon, I replace it with a Smith & Wesson riot shotgun. I set the police lock on the front door. The police lock is an iron bar that sticks into a hole in the floor. To get past it, they'd need to take the door apart. They could use a sledgehammer. They could use a blowtorch. Either of those takes time. If they used a shaped charge to blow the door off its hinges, the lock might still hold.

At story's end, when the adjuster walks into an actual life-threatening situation, he remains unsettlingly calm and focused. But then, he's been expecting something like this for a long time.

Cavell is a 1998 cum laude graduate of Harvard in English literature. He was an editor at the Harvard Crimson, the 130-year-old daily college newspaper, and was captain of the university's boxing team. Cavell has said that boxing gave him both a more realistic sense of violence and a confidence that has carried over to his writing. Because of the boxing and the unflinching clarity of his prose, he has already, if prematurely, been compared to Hemingway and Mailer. While acknowledging the "tremendous influence" of both writers, Cavell found Hemingway's style "madly attractive and madly limiting," he once said. "There are themes one might want in one's work that seem unable to exist inside the hard muscles of Hemingway's sentences."

Emotional detachment is a theme Cavell explores in depth in these stories. It's the stated goal of the main characters in "Evolution," but it's most chillingly on display in "The Art of the Possible." Here, an up-and-coming politician is running for re-election to Congress, having captured the seat two years earlier, a couple of weeks after his 28th birthday. Every move he makes, every word he utters, every smile he flashes is planned, rehearsed and programmed for ready use.

Every time you shake, you grip the top of the other person's forearm with your left hand. You are giving casual intimacy. You are jovial. You have seven jokes that you are telling in sequence. Three of them are self-deprecating. [These show that your power has not gone to your head.] Four of them are about the president. [These show that you cannot be intimidated.] You have two dirty jokes that you do not tell as part of the sequence. You tell these only to old white men.

Powered by Benzedrine, the candidate hasn't slept in days. As he begins to unravel, the planted words leak out at grotesquely inappropriate moments. Before bed one night, his wife finds him in the bathroom kneeling in front of the toilet. Worried and beginning to cry, she tells him she loves him. He says to her: "Careful not to give too much too soon. Always try for the slow build. ... Real emotion makes people nervous. It's important to reflect quiet calm. Ideally, you should be sitting down behind a big desk. It makes you look powerful but stable. It's vital to stay placid. Passion is too Mussolini."

In the collection's two boxing stories, not a single punch is thrown. The first, "Killing Time," describes how one boxer spends the week leading up to an important prizefight. We can feel the tension building as the days tick off. The other one, "The Ropes," is the final story in the book and one of the best. It opens with Alex Folsom lying in a hospital bed, recently awakened from a coma. He can remember a few things from the early part of fight day but nothing of the bout itself. Folsom, whose father had been a high-ranking professional heavyweight, was a good boxer in college and decided to enter the Golden Gloves competition. The fighter who ultimately won the tournament beat him nearly to death. "Ropes" tracks Folsom's slow, painful recovery from physical -- and psychic -- injuries.

Rumble, Young Man, Rumble is the work of a writer of extraordinary talent. Bristling with intensity, these stories are filled with insight into human frailty, motivation and possibility. Cavell, still in his 20s, may not be ready to step into the ring with Hemingway and Mailer, but he's a skilled and serious fiction writer with a very bright future. | June 2003


Charles Smyth is a Seattle editor and periodic contributor to January Magazine.