A book on boxing by Joyce Carol Oates would seem at first glance a bizarre mismatch, like Norman Mailer writing on the role of high tea in Victorian society. Oates, the frail author of Bellefleur, A Bloodsmoor Romance and other neoGothic tales, seems a sure bet to hold conventional feminist notions about the masculine blood sport: boxing is brutal, dangerous, immoral and ought to be banned by all right-thinking persons as quickly as possible. Nothing of the sort is the case with Oates. Growing up near Buffalo, N.Y., with a fight fan for a father, Oates has been obsessively fascinated by the game for years. Consequently, On Boxing is a consistently brilliant, eloquent, formidably knowledgeable commentary on what others have called the “sweet science of bruising.” And it can easily hold its own with the equivalent efforts of such heavyweights as Mailer and George Plimpton.
On Boxing is a philosophic investigation into civilized man’s enduring fascination for the sport that Oates calls “the most tragic of all.” Boxing, she writes, “inhabits a sacred space predating civilization, before God was love.” For Oates, boxing is primarily an esthetic experience with strong social, moral and psychological lessons to teach. “Each boxing match,” she
writes, “is a story—a unique and highly condensed drama without words,” one in which fighters render “a public accounting of the outermost limits of their being.” Far from being repelled by the harsh, stoical code of the ring, Oates is invigorated by “a world model in which we are humanly responsible not only for our own acts but for those performed against us.”
Surveying the sport, the erudite Oates discusses a multitude of champions from Jack Dempsey through Sugar Ray Robinson to such present-day heroes as Marvellous Marvin Hagler and the current heavyweight champion,
Mike Tyson. But she is also interested in the losers —journeymen fighters of undistinguished ability who make a precarious living by taking reliable beatings from more promising talents. Oates sympathizes with those fighters, whose origins she describes as “the anonymous subsoil of humanity.” Countering the arguments of genteel opponents of the sport, she comments, “Desperation for money or simply for ‘fame’ cannot be regulated.” Oates is acutely aware of the kinship between artist and boxer. Both are solitary individuals and both, of necessity, must cultivate a keen sense of discipline. Enumerating the serious
writers who have paid considered attention to the sport, Oates cites Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Lord Byron, Ernest Hemingway and Mailer. In her view, the pugilistic writings of Hemingway and New Yorker journalist A.J. Liebling are overrated. Mailer remains her champ.
As for Oates, she has produced as learned an apologia for boxing as written by any author of either sex. While her ladylike prose often makes a piquant contrast to her bloody subject matter, the “savage ceremony” of boxing is obviously attractive to her Gothic sensibility: both share a taste for what Oates terms “the frisson of dread.” Other writers on the fight game had better watch out for the accomplished Ms. Oates. The lady’s writing packs a wallop.
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