Pure power in the punches (book review)

The Times, August 26, 2006

by F.X. Toole
Harvill Secker, £12; 384pp

LITTLE APPEARS TO BE known of F. X. Toole’s life before boxing. Such scant biographical details as exist describe him as a former bullfighter, a taxi driver, a cement-truck driver and a vat cleaner.

What we do know, though, is that at the age of 48 Toole — the son of Irish immigrants whose real name was Jerry Boyd — discovered boxing. By then, he was too old to have any fights, amateur or professional, but only too eager to absorb as much as he could of the “sweet science” and all that it has to offer.

Toole spent the next 22 years immersing himself in boxing, working as a cut man and trainer, before Rope Burns, a collection of short stories, was published.

The rest is history. One of the collection, Million Dollar Baby, was made into an Oscar-winning film, with Clint Eastwood as director. Toole did not live to see the film, dying in 2002 of heart problems, but his last words — “Doc, get me just a little more time, I gotta finish my book” — are now honoured with the publication of a novel hewn from 900 pages of manuscript bequeathed to his three children.

Pound for Pound inhabits territory that will be familiar to readers of Rope Burns. Dan Cooley is a veteran trainer who could have been a contender had it not been for a moment of unconscionable cheating by the tough Mexican fighter Eloy “The Wolf” Garza, whose low tactics were all too happily aided and abetted by a lowlife trainer and dope peddler, Trini Cavazo.

Years later, the Wolf cannot live with the burden of having denied Cooley his chance. By then, Cooley has buried not only his wife and children but also his grandson, the promising 11-year-old fighter Tim Pat. These are scarred men, barely able to cope with their lives, clinging despite themselves to the one thing that, for Toole, has true nobility — boxing.

Cooley and Eloy are set on a collision course when the Wolf’s grandson, Chicky Garza, shows talent as a boxer. Garza suffers the mercenary behaviour of a succession of dubious characters, not least the Cavazo brothers, but is dispatched to Los Angeles in search of Cooley by his grandfather. The Wolf knows that Cooley is the best trainer around, the one man who can ensure that Chicky’s prodigious natural talent is realised.

Cooley takes the boy on not knowing of his connection to the Wolf. Cooley is fresh from a road trip whose purpose was suicide but in the course of which his humanity emerges when he saves a starving dog. Towards the end of a relentless novel whose prose is as rhythmic and tough as a heavyweight’s fists on a heavy bag, the scene is set for Chicky to fight “Psycho” Sykes, a boxer from the stable of the corrupt Cavazos.

Early on, I feared that Toole’s sentimentality would cloy. He creates a series of events that are never less than heart-rending, played out in a resolutely Manichean universe. The bad guys are very bad, the good guys ultimately good, even if a little flawed. But Toole writes with such passion that one becomes as absorbed in his novel as much as the man himself was in boxing.

And this, of course, is what Pound for Pound is about: the fight game, the intentional cultivation and infliction of pain, the “noble art” and the people within it, those whose destiny is to live, metaphorically and literally, within Cooley’s gym, “The School of Hard Knocks”.

It is a world that most of us will only ever read about, but with a guide like Toole, we come away knowing the truth of what seems to me to animate every word of his prose: there is a purity — of purpose, valour, intent, psychological commitment — inside anyone capable of climbing through the ropes, but sadly, the world beyond the ring is a very different beast.