Though I’ve heard great things about Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari was the first by him that I’ve read – well, listened to actually. Thanks to our current location in Chicago and the locations of our respective families, the holidays involve a lot of driving for Mrs. Millions and me – 36 hours worth this year if my math is correct. One of the best ways to pass the time is with audiobooks and even though Mrs. Millions got me XM Radio this year, Dark Star Safari was so engaging that we spent a lot of our trip listening to it. It’s a shame that the audio version appears to be unavailable (we got ours from the library) because it was very well done. Norman Deitz, as narrator, is very much in character as Theroux, and he gamely contorts his voice when relating the dialog of the many men and women of various nationalities that Theroux meets on his way from Cairo to Capetown. Though Africa is the centerpiece of this book, Theroux shares top billing. As he explains, this trip, very much a solo journey, was a return to the continent where he lived 40 years ago as a young Peace Corps volunteer and teacher. He soon finds that a lot of Africa has changed and not for the better. Much of the book is devoted to finding out why. We learn a lot about Africa’s history and geography and we meet dozens of fascinating people along the way from Nobel Laureates to prostitutes. But Theroux, writing in his 60s and having earned the right to hold forth on such things, dwells most upon his likes and dislikes. He does not like most of the aid workers in Africa and he explains, rather convincingly, why the aid system is broken. He does not like proselytizing missionaries, with whom he gleefully argues theology. He does not like Africa’s sprawling, destitute, dangerous cities. Theroux, however, likes the “bush,” the great trackless stretches of Africa where people still live simply, uncorrupted by foreign aid and oppressive governments. Of the people he meets, Theroux likes the straight-talkers, the honest people who care about Africa and aren’t trying to get something from him. Though Theroux spends a lot of time analyzing the current state of Africa in his own engaging, non-technical way, the enormity of his journey was what made the book so enjoyable for me. He travels by every method imaginable in a meandering path from Egypt to South Africa. Along the way he is shot at by bandits, harassed by border guards and harangued by Africa’s urban predators. Theroux acknowledges the similarities of his travels with those of many Westerners before him, but he does not slip into romanticism or despair. He loves Africa for its chaos.
As anyone who keeps up with world financial markets surely knows, the People’s Republic of China is booming. After the quashing of the Chinese democracy movement in Tienanmen Square in 1989, Deng Xiaoping did an about-face and introduced capitalism as a panacea for the woes of his country. Echoing the call “to get rich is glorious,” many old-guard communist institutions were abandoned in favor of quasi-free market ventures, and the result was a China on the make, full of hustlers and schemers, anxious to make a buck. Crooked politicians became crooked entrepreneurs, and the pursuit of wealth became not just the means to an end that Deng Xiaoping had envisioned, but an end in itself. The Chinese literary scene caught on quickly, selling out its ideological foundations for the cheap fix of fast money, and a national literature of the explicit was born, with even writers whose writing had once been pillars of the democracy movement turning their efforts to the salacious and titillating, whatever would sell. It was in this milieu that Zhu Wen, whose stories are collected in the recently released anthology I Love Dollars, made his literary debut.Modern China, as captured by Wen, is a Kafkaesque horror. The parallels to Kafka’s work are uncanny: the endless bureaucracy, arbitrary nature of decision making, the crushing closeness of others, ambivalence to – almost reflexive fear of – sex, all coming together to make even the smallest task a trial of epic difficulty. Kafka’s preoccupations seem a perfect fit for China, and Wen manages to capture all of the loathing, and paradoxically – and much to my great relief – all of the bleak humor of Kafka’s best work.The title story, which follows the antics of a father and son as they scour a nameless factory town looking for the narrator’s younger brother, is a send up/satire of the go-go China of the 1990s. Much like Kafka’s The Castle, the story documents the endless circular pursuit of a goal, which, when finally attained, proves meaningless. The unnamed narrator possesses an almost Portnoy-like obsession with sex. (Philip Roth once when asked if he had been influenced by the stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, replied, no, he had been influenced by a sit-down comedian, Franz Kafka.) He views every interaction from the perspective of getting laid, and his search for his brother is repeatedly waylaid by his sexual proclivities. The humor that arises from this obsession tempers Wen’s insinuation that China has traded the good of the Democracy movement for something vulgar. When the narrator insists that his father abandon their search for the brother to find some girls, his father refuses, leading him to note, “In [my father’s] day libido wasn’t called libido, it was called idealism.” Later, in a discussion of his second favorite topic, money, he declaims, “We’ve all got things we can learn from [Western money]… From its straight-up, honest-to-goodness, absolute value[s].”As the stories unfold, Kafka’s influence becomes increasingly pronounced. The second story, “A Hospital Night,” and the third story “A Boat Crossing” both transform Kafka’s familiar themes into exquisite commentaries on life in modern China. They’re built on an atmosphere of gloom, paranoia and general malaise, so complete and effective it is at times literally chilling. And yet, the bleakness is so absolute, it inevitably becomes ridiculous, as in “A Hospital Night” when the narrator is dragooned into taking care of an elderly man he barely knows and whom despises him. The ensuing power struggle, waged over the elderly man’s indignation at being tended to by a stranger and the narrator’s need to empty his bed pan, could be taken directly from the pages of Amerika, and will surely elicit snorts and belly laughs from anyone with an appreciation for dark humor. “A Boat Crossing,” while also amusing in its way draws a darker picture of life, where a man, escaping from a nameless fear, learns that sometimes the things that seem the least threatening can be the most dangerous.”Wheels” and “Pounds, Ounces, Meat” follow in the same vein. The first details an endless series of confrontations between a man and the pseudo-gangsters who are determined to make him pay their grandfather’s hospital bills, and the latter follows a couple as their attempts to prove they’ve been cheated by a butcher cascade into a series of antic misadventures. “Ah, Xiao Xie” provides an interesting twist on the Kafka story, observing a Kafkaesque protagonist, a man struggling to quit his job at a power plant, from the viewpoint of a rational observer. As with so many of Kafka’s characters, Xiao Xie’s motives are completely inscrutable and defy all conventional logic, boggling the mind of the narrator, much as Kafka’s endless variations on himself confound his readers. Eventually, Xiao Xie’s struggle with the nearly indomitable will of his employers, who refuse to let him resign, undergoes a hilarious reversal. After Xiao Xie ruins his health with one of his schemes, his employers try to fire him, while he desperately clings to his job, terrified of losing his health insurance.It’s difficult to say whether Wen writes from a love of Kafka or a more organic identification with the themes of his work. Although Kafka’s portrait hangs in Wen’s office, many historical accounts of communist rule in China seem readymade for Kafka themselves. Many of Chairman Mao’s initiatives summon forth images worthy of The Trial or The Castle, and the bizarre amalgamation of capitalist freedoms and communist tyranny seems a recipe for the confrontations between the self and the faceless bureaucracies that form the basis of so much of his work. The Chinese legalist tradition, harking back to the sixth century BC, also provides another point of similarity. The legalist’s obsession with honoring the letter of the law over its spirit, reflected in the practice, if not necessarily the philosophy, of Chinese communism (not often noted, but to my mind indisputable), mirrors the unbending rules of the Talmud, with which Kafka expressed a deep fascination. Wen’s work suggests that this combination of Jewish legalism and Germanic bureaucratic organization that Kafka experienced as an antagonistic force during his life in Bohemia has found itself reborn in a bizarro Chinese form. It might be hell to live through, but it makes for a fantastic read.
In William Faulkner’s masterpiece Absalom, Absalom!, landowner Thomas Sutpen’s idea of a rousing good time is to stage fights between his slaves. It’s his way of reminding himself of his own station in life, his triumph over his white trash past, to watch the lower orders go after each other tooth and nail, “fighting not like white men fight, with rules and weapons, but like negroes fight to hurt one another quick and bad.” Occasionally, he even likes to participate, “as a grand finale or perhaps as a matter of sheer deadly forethought toward the retention of supremacy, domination, he would enter the ring with one of the negroes himself.”
Money, power, race, and violence – they’ve all been a part of boxing from the beginning and they’re on full display in At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from the Library of America. I could tell you how good this book is, and point out that the editors do a great job of piecing together a 20th Century history of the sport as told by a variety of first-class journalists (A.J. Liebling, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Gay Talese, Leonard Gardner, Budd Schulberg) and a number of lesser-knowns who are just as good. That, however, is not what most impressed me about the book.
What impressed me is that it’s hard to love the sport without being, also, deeply aware of what a bestial exhibition it is. It’s uncivilized, dirty, corrupt, and ought to be against the law; it’s also deeply satisfying on a purely primal level. It’s a racket that refuses to be rehabilitated, and a volatile, exhilarating vice.
There are any number of ways of looking at it, many of them contradictory. Here are a few.
It’s about white power
Jack London – Yukon adventurer, Socialist stalwart, all-time champion of the underdog – had it in for a cocky heavyweight champion named Jack Johnson. In Reno, Nevada in 1910 he watched the perpetually grinning Johnson square off against James L. Jeffries, the man London pegged for the Great White Hope to reclaim the championship.
“Jim Jeffries must now emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that golden smile from Johnson’s face,” he had written previously. “Jeff, it’s up to you. The White Man must be rescued.”
In Reno, London joined the audience in chanting, “Don’t let the Negro knock him out, don’t let the Negro knock him out.”
The Negro knocked him out, still smiling. London doesn’t begrudge Johnson the win, but he still yearned for a white hero. “And where now is the champion who will make Johnson extend himself, remove that smile and silence that golden repartee?”
It’s about good versus evil
The Great White Hope was Max Schmeling. He was Hitler’s man in the ring. When he knocked out the Brown Bomber, Joe Louis, in 1934, German newspapers took it as proof of master race ideology.
When Louis met Schmeling again four years later, the stakes were high: it was American democracy versus the Third Reich, which was not without its sympathizers down South. Richard Wright, covering the story for New Masses, reports of rumblings that “allowing a Negro to defeat a white man in public… tended to create in Negroes too much pride and made them ‘intractable.’”
Schmeling’s comeuppance was swift and terrible, ending two minutes into the first round. Columnist Bob Considine couldn’t type the story fast enough: “Listen to this, buddy, for it comes from a guy whose palms are still wet, whose throat is still dry, and whose jaw is still agape from the utter shock of watching Joe Louis knock out Max Schmeling.”
In Harlem, according to Wright, there was dancing in the streets, where Schmeling was burned in effigy and thousands yelled “Heil Louis!” The editors of the present volume suspect this was a people’s uprising of Wright’s fervid Communist imagination, but it’s the kind of legend one can only hope is true.
It’s about blackness
It is 1962, and two fighters represent opposite sides of the black experience in America. In one corner is the very handsome Floyd Patterson, devoted father, successful businessman, and heavyweight champion of the world. In the other stands his challenger: Sonny Liston, a proud thug with a criminal record, a gambler, and an all-time bad example. The American Dream versus Your Worst Fucking Nightmare.
Everyone from the NAACP to Martin Luther King, Jr. to President Kennedy wants Patterson to win. So does James Baldwin; it’s the choice between “the disciplined sweetness of Floyd, or the outspoken intransigence of Liston.”
Intransigence wins in the first round, destroying Patterson’s burgeoning career as a role model. Liston’s reign at the top is short. Two years later, he faces a brash upstart named Cassius Clay, who is nine years younger. He goes in the favorite; the hoodlum turned cop, as Murray Kempton puts it, “the big Negro we pay to keep sassy Negroes in line.” The sassy Negro wins in six rounds, and celebrates by renaming himself Muhammad Ali. A rematch a year later is famously humiliating: Liston is knocked out in round one, and Ali dances with joy.
Within a decade, Liston is dead, found with a needle in his arm, foul play suspected. Joe Flaherty in the Village Voice writes the epitaph: “He was a blatant mother in a fucker’s game… As Ali murdered the myth of the sixties, so Liston was the pallbearer of the fifties’ liberalism. He embodied what they didn’t want to recognize – that our streets spawn a sea of Sonnys.”
A Sea of Sonnys, Part I
I remember once, two boys and myself, we robbed a guy. Threw him down. I could hold the guy because I was strong, and the sneaky fella would grab the money. And then we’d run until we couldn’t hear the guy screaming anymore. And then we’d walk home as if we’d just earned some money on a job, counting it. We didn’t even know we were criminals.
– George Foreman
A Sea of Sonnys, Part II
…[Mike] Tyson seems to have styled himself at least partly on the model of Charles (Sonny) Liston, the ‘baddest of the bad’ black heavyweights. Liston had numerous arrests to his credit and served time in prison (for assaulting a policeman); he had the air, not entirely contrived, of a sociopath; he was always friendly with racketeers, and died of a drug overdose that may in fact have been murder… Like Liston, Tyson has grown to take a cynical pleasure in publicly condoned sadism…
– Joyce Carol Oates
It thrives on exploitation
Primo Carnera, a big dumb circus freak (6’7”, 268 lbs.), arrives in this country from Italy and quickly falls into the hands of the mob. Although Carnera barely knows how to box, he rises to the top through a series of fixed fights, with the prize money split up by the fixers. When the fights get to the top level, Carnera is gradually destroyed by a series of boxers – Tommy Loughran, Max Baer, Joe Louis, Leroy Haynes – who actually know what they’re doing. “His last days in the United States were spent alone in a hospital,” writes Paul Gallico. “One leg was paralyzed, the result of beatings taken around the head. None of the carrion birds who had picked him clean ever came back to see him or help him.”
It’s about violence
I wanted to hit him one more time in the nose so that bone could go up his brain.
– Mike Tyson, regarding Jesse Ferguson.
De La Hoya opened a gash above [Julio Cesar] Chavez’s left eye a minute into the fight. It was like a razor cut, a red thread. But De La Hoya attacked the wound until it was the size of a baby’s mouth. Then, in the fourth and final round, came a left hand thrown from an acute angle, something between a hook and an uppercut, a punch that seemed to explode Chavez’s nose, making shrapnel of cartilage and tissue and blood.
“Oh, that felt good,” says De La Hoya, now dreamy with delight. He’s never had a sip of liquor, but blood, even the recollection of blood, gets him high. “I wish he had two noses,” he says.
– Mark Kriegel
It’s not about violence
They said I lacked the killer instinct… I found no joy in knocking people unconscious or battering their faces. The lust for battle and massacre was missing. I had a notion that the killer instinct was really founded in fear, that the killer of the ring raged with ruthless brutality because deep down he was afraid.
– Gene Tunney
It’s more about muscle than skill
In 1921, Jack Dempsey, the “Manassas Mauler,” who sat out World War I, faced Georges Carpentier, a valiant Frenchman who had served with distinction. By popular accord, Carpentier was a better man and a better boxer; the crowd greets him, writes Irvin S. Cobb, with “an ovation as never before an alien fighter received on American soil.” Ringside experts like George Bernard Shaw point out Carpentier’s extraordinary skill. It doesn’t matter. Carpentier’s blows, writes H.L. Mencken, “had the effect upon the iron champion of petting with a hot water bag.” When Carpentier falls and staggers to his feet for the last time, Cobb writes: “It is the rule of the ring that not even a somnambulist may be spared the finishing stroke.”
It’s more about skill than muscle
When another valiant soldier of the Great War, Gene Tunney, took on Dempsey, it looked like another massacre in the making. Tunney let it be known that he liked reading Shakespeare, which made Dempsey think he was a pansy. Actually, it was Tunney who saw through Dempsey. He had studied him, and knew that for all his hitting power he didn’t have a great defense. True to form, once they got in the ring, Dempsey left himself exposed. Hamlet knocked him out.
What we call punch drunk doctors call “dementia pugilistica.” A report from the Journal of the American Medical Association, according to a 1986 article by Bill Barich, surveys 18 boxers, most of them pros, who have not retired for medical or psychological reasons, and had no known drug or alcohol problems. A majority “suffered from a variety of complaints, such as disorientation, confusion, temporary amnesia, and Parkinsonian disturbance.” Also, “brain damage seemed to be a widespread condition among fighters… Worse still, the condition was degenerative, and symptoms often did not materialize for years.”
Duk Koo Kim (1959-1982), a Korean boxer of renowned aggression, took on Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. In the 13th round, Mancini knocks out Kim, who quickly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies. Kim’s mother commits suicide. So does referee Richard Green, wracked with guilt over not stopping the fight sooner.
It leads to sobering reflection
In no other sport this side of dueling is it an objective to inflict pain, or even physical harm, on one’s opponent.
– George Kimball
…[B]oxing is the ultimate sport where you have your unconscious opponent dead if you win, and next month maybe derided as a broken-down pug yourself. It’s combat, not diffused into a team sport such as football where the officiating is more solicitous and the pain is blurred, or gentrified like tennis or golf. It is conflict with no drinks together afterward.
– Edward Hoagland
The paradox of boxing is that it so excessively rewards men for inflicting injury upon one another that, outside the ring, with less “art” would be punishable as aggravated assault, or manslaughter.
– Joyce Carol Oates
It’s a job
What are we to do with these men who know how to do nothing but fight? I suppose we can continue to lock them in our jails and in our ghettos, out of sight and untouched by our regard. That, in the end, is precisely what those who wish to ban boxing really want to do: not to safeguard the lives of the men who must do this work but simply to sweep one excessively distasteful and inexplicable sin of bourgeois culture under the rug.
– Gerald Early
With blood still streaming down his face and onto his chest, [Marvin] Hagler leaped into the air at least $5.7 million richer.
– Pat Putnam
It turns writers into pugilists of prose
Across that embattled short space Foreman threw punches in barrages of four and six and eight and nine, heavy maniacal slamming punches, heavy as the boom of oaken doors, bombs to the body, bolts to the head, punching until he could not breathe, backing off to breathe again and come in again, bomb again, blast again, drive and steam and slam the torso in front of him, wreck him in the arms, break through those arms, get to his ribs, dig him out, dig him out, put the dynamite in the earth, lift him, punch him, punch him up to heaven, take him out, stagger him — great earthmover he must have sobbed to himself, kill this mad and bouncing goat.
– Norman Mailer on the Ali-Foreman Fight
It makes them reach for odd literary references
His fighting style is as formless as the prose of Gertrude Stein.
– Heywood Broun
So he perished there in that Homeric stewpan, a brave man but an unwise one.
– H.L. Mencken
Since the rise of [Rocky] Marciano, [Archie] Moore, a cerebral and hyper-experienced and light-colored pugilist who has been active since 1936, has suffered the pangs of a supreme example of bel canto who sees himself crowded out of the opera house by a guy who can only shout.
– A. J. Liebling
It’s a creative act
The ideal fighter has heart, skill, movement, intelligence, creativity. You can have everything, but if you can’t make it up while you’re in there, you can’t be great. A lot of guys have the mechanics and no heart; lots of guys have heart, no mechanics; the thing that puts it together, it’s mysterious, it’s like making a work of art, you bring everything to it, you make it up when you’re doing it.
– Cus D’Amato, legendary trainer
Last words of Duk Koo Kim, scrawled on a lampshade in his hotel room:
“Kill or be killed.”