Let’s get this straight from the get go. This isn’t a review of the film Million Dollar Baby, which I haven’t at all seen and can’t comment on. This is a review of the book Rope Burns by Jerry Boyd, writing under the pen name F.X. Toole. Rope Burns is a collection of short fictional stories written about boxing, which bears the name of the longest story in the book, a small novella also called Rope Burns. One of the stories in the book is Million Dollar Baby, the source material from which the film was adapted. Subsequently, following the film’s release the collection of stories was re-released under the same name as the film.
Though this is not a review of the film, the review offers spoilers from the source material so is very likely to spoil the film as well. Don’t ask me, I haven’t seen the film and once you’ve read the discussion below, you’ll understand why I am not really likely to. Hmmmm…..maybe should have held the suspense on that one. Oh well.
Let’s get to it. This book sucks.
Almost every story features an Irish-American cut man or boxing trainer who is the real hero of the story and whom the narratorial comments always suggest is brilliant. If this man tricks someone, they always fall for it. If he trains a boxer, that boxer is incredible and can never lose an honest match. If that boxer fights someone, he always wins. All the good people in the novel trust him, all the bad people hate him. He is honourable, charitable and generally presented as being brilliant, even when I as the reader identify him as a being an asshole.
This isn’t a clever narrative device such as that used by Toby Litt in Finding Myself where an untrustworthy narrator seeks to present themselves and their selfish actions as good and honourable but actually we as the reader can see how horrible they are being. No, this is an unskilled writer who has stretched out a bunch of pub stories and embellished them until they are Baron von Munchausen style lies about all the ways he is amazing and how everything he does is brilliant. You can argue that the Irish figure who has a different name in each story is actually Toole’s mentor Dub Huntley who he thanks in the foreword but the factual Introduction where he tells you about his real life before sidling into the fictional exactly-the-damn-same Irishman says otherwise. This is self-aggrandisement writ large.
At times, Toole comes across as not even a very good boxing trainer. He admits himself that he only entered into boxing in his 40s and so likely never reached a very high level. In Million Dollar Baby itself the point is that the stand-in Toole character trains the female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald but most of the technical detail in the training sessions is limited to simple truisms of training like weight distribution between the feet whilst punching and odd statements like “snap your ass into your shots” which seem just as likely to confuse a fighter as to accurately explain technique. Toole details this basic technique training but glosses over the more complex ringcraft. What I took away from this is that Toole is able to write about boxing at the level I am, a quite basic one. What he comes across as is someone who has spent time in boxing gyms and can teach the basics but really in terms of depicting a high level trainer, it’s not much more than a poorly drawn fantasy. Keep in mind that Maggie is based on real-life boxer Juli Crockett, who far from being worth a million dollars and being the kind of dedicated born fighter who would fight to the bone, amassed only a 3-0 record. It all comes across as massive pub story exaggeration and you are left wondering what is true and what isn’t about this man that inserts himself into every one of his stories. Without knowing much about the facts, I buy that Toole was a cut man but I don’t buy that he was ever much of a trainer. In one part of the book, he allows his fighter to train with a sparring partner that is intentionally trying to cut him open with elbows, something no sane trainer would ever do prior to a big fight. In another, he pours scorn on fighters who leave behind their first trainers for better ones. I peg Toole as one of the initial trainers who frankly felt he knew boxing inside out, perhaps in excess of his actual skill as a trainer.
The book comes across like a series of unrestrained brags about the author, but Toole ultimately does paint a picture of a boxing world. Whether or not you want to read poorly written fiction to get to that rather than journalism, that’s another issue. I’ll cycle through each of the short stories to give you an exact idea on just what a chore this book was to finish.
The Monkey Look- Clever Irish cut man helps out an evil, mustache twirling ex-con fighter on steroids (remember, all the evil people are super evil so clever Irishman can be really clever and good). The fighter tries to trick the old man out of his money, so the old man does an intentionally bad job with his cuts and makes him lose the fight. It all comes down to a MacGuyver scene where they don’t notice he is sitting behind them and don’t know he can speak Spanish. It’s passable, Elmore-Leonard-style stuff but nothing to write home about.
Black Jew- Yep, pretty much everyone involved in boxing tosses around racial slurs in this world, even in the title. Whilst this is eminently believable, it’s debatable the extent to which Toole supports and validates this practise but more on this later. This story is written from the perspective of a Black trainer and is written in a fairly insulting patois to which Toole subjects all of his black characters. The clever Irishman is still the hero though, standing up to the promoters who want to mistreat an underdog who eventually goes on to win. So a feel good story, huh? The last line: “Reggie just want the white Jew to know he be dealing with a black Jew”. Yeah. That.
Million Dollar Baby- If you told me that one of the stories in this book was considered interesting enough to make into a movie, I would lose a lot of money betting on every story apart from this one. It’s really a facile tale of a pugnacious young woman who wins over an old, sexist (Irish) boxing trainer, who takes her to a championship. So far, so expected but this female Rocky story really isn’t told with much flair or insight. The trainer starting to train the woman is so formulaic, at no point do you believe that he won’t agree to train her. Then though he sees potential in her and that she is already a boxer, she knows literally nothing and as noted the training sessions are a bunch of truisms ripped from textbooks. Suddenly she is banging people out left and right (Toole glosses over much of this transition). The idea of the pioneering woman going into the gym for the first time doesn’t really fit with the vibrant female boxing scene that is clearly already evident in the story (for a much better book on this, read this classic). Maggie is a bit of a one-note character, a savage country girl with really no background or personality to speak of. The best (and most seemingly informed part of the story) is where the Toole-stand-in delays her title shot so she can get more experience.
However, the end of the book really is the kicker. Whilst fighting an opponent that the author in his female-empowerment story describes in the most sexist way possible (a “manly” former prostitute, described as a “bulldagger”), Fitzgerald falls and hits her head on the stool, causing her to be paralysed. Yes, you read that right, sceptical reader. In a sport where people punch each other in the head until one of them gets a concussion and falls down, usually suffering some degree of life long brain damage over time with many fighters completely disabled, Toole decides that the way his heroine gets brain damage is falling onto the fucking stool in much the same way that a non-boxer could at any fucking time. In doing this, Toole not only clearly indicates that he is not interested in actually focusing on the boxing itself but actually conspicuously avoids talking about the dirty secret that all true fans of combat sports must freely admit to.
What happens next is without doubt a pile of shit. Fitzgerald’s family visit her in the hospital but they are completely and unrealistically evil and uncaring. Clever Irish pensioner beats them all up including an old woman – and somehow this is presented as a good thing and not assault. Stay tuned because this is not the only story where ol’ Irish beats up an old woman and feels proud about it. The repetition of this fact makes me feel that maybe the real author likes to beat up old women in real life and wants his handiwork to be recorded in his fiction in the most heroic way possible.
Fitzgerald is paralysed but is not reporting any pain (specifically she feels nothing below a certain point) and is able to speak and communicate exactly as she did before. Toole avoids going into any detail about her exact medical condition because obviously that would have required research and also because that would have made what follows increasingly unlikely. Fitzgerald asks to die. Irish stand in goes to confession, and then does it saying that he feels no guilt at all and feels that he absolutely did the right thing. Yep, everything is black and white. If someone is depressed and in hospital recently after losing a fight and asks to die, just go and end them because nobody has ever been suicidal and later changed their mind. And of course, when someone is paralysed and can’t use their body any more their life is obviously over and no amount of encouragement and love would change that. When Fitzgerald is abandoned by her own family, rather than become her new father figure, fake-Toole straight up murders her. And the narratorial voice says, yep, that was the right thing to do. No doubts after the event. No regrets.
The cowardice of an aging writer to avoid considering his own approaching mortality in favour of an assisted suicide of a young woman is the reason that I say Fuck You, Jerry Boyd.
No, I’m not watching the film.
Fightin in Philly- Let’s start this way, “He didn’t like orange in the tricolour of Ireland – Orange had no place in his Irish heart”. Yep, a US-born American fuelling sectarian rivalry in Europe. How charming. Don’t be fuelled reader into thinking that this is just a portrait of a multi-faceted character, this is the author’s avatar who appears as the same man with a different name in every story (in this case, Con) and so very much harder to swallow than a fictional detail. Again, the Irish-American cut man out-performs the black American fighter coach in every way in a sense that by this stage of the book is becoming repetitive. Will a black trainer ever outperform and impress the Irishman? No, of course not. “Mookie would repeat what Odell always said about Con, ‘He a hell of a man.'”.
This incredible, amazing super-Irishman fixes a leg injury of his fighter and then goes into a park and is approached by young people and recites to them poetry, which impresses them. Tough but with a smart sensitive soul! The whole thing is so poorly written it hurts at this point. Why the young people approach him randomly in the park (asking about his tatoos supposedly) never washes or rings true and if you spout some random lines of poem back at them, the response is likely going to be boredom, not the shitty Dangerous Minds style, “whoah, man, you blew my mind, tell me more” type guff you get here. Self aggrandizement has never tried so hard, nor mattered less to the plot. More to this, he goes to a gallery and spends two pages travelogue-describing the art there…..because he’s smart, do you get it? He’s smart.
I think that this is all supposed to be look, boxing let me travel the world! But rather than describing the emotional feeling, the detachment and wonder of travel (perhaps along the lines of something like this. But no, Toole just describes what happened, where he went, how smart he is and his character adapts perfectly, has no inner soul, no inner feelings. He’s a robot man who could be para-dropped into any diorama without feeling lost, this eternal cut man. And that makes for detached, boring fiction.
The fight itself is a depiction of how the opponent cheats, then the fighter cheats more, so the opponent cheats more in turn. Realistic, perhaps, but not exciting, not inspiring and a pretty dull depiction of combat sports. The ref has been bribed, which Toole lets us know with narratorial voice, stupidly considering that we have exclusively followed Con up until this point. This lack of uncertainty, lack of ambiguity plagues the book. Toole’s heroes are always 100% right and opponents always 100% cheat. No self doubt. Old men without maturity.
At the end of the fight, the right wing views return. Toole’s avatar jumps in the ring and threatens the opposing cheating fighter (like an asshole but the narrator clearly doesn’t see it that way). Quote the book, “They looked into each others’ eyes, the Ugandan’s black, Con’s green…..One face was the face of the slaves that were captured from east africa and taken from the Muslim market. The other face was the face of the Irish warriors of the British Empire that once ruled the world, including Uganda”. Again, FUCK YOU Boyd. Why you insist in presenting this kind of determinist racist myth is beyond me, even when I invite the true recognition of the slur-talk of the training room. Why your character hates the colour Orange but somehow becomes an imperialist when he hates an African is just horrible. And the assumption that a Black Ugandan must be a descendent of a slave is just ignorant.
Frozen Water- The shortest story. A perhaps mentally challenged young white man goes to a boxing gym. The coaches there like keeping him around but a horrid and talentless African American fighter beats him up and crestfallen, he never returns. Again, we’re back in a patois that feels insulting. The story is passable but hardly heart-breaking. Whether the man leaves the gym as a result of being beaten or leaves because the trainers tell him to leave, the result feels inevitable. I never felt that the trainers felt any affection beyond pity. A story about a bond and being proud of whatever achievements you can get in life, it isn’t. Mentally challenged individuals train in the martial arts all the time with respectable achievements. The trainers here have no goals for the young man, they keep him more as part of the furniture. So at the end, it all feels too easy. If the story had been about genuine affection or about the crushed dreams of an able man, I might have cared. The story feels like more of the same aggrandizement (look at me, I also train mentally challenged people) or at least some constructed attempts at tear-jerking without genuine pathos. The good people are good and the bad people are really bad and cruel. No ambiguity. No reality.
Rope Burns- A novella compared to the other stories and the eponymous tale for the whole collection before the film came out. This, my friends, is a real shit storm. The novel doesn’t really touch upon boxing so much as it is a crime story set upon the backdrop of the 1992 LA Riots. Toole attacks the problem through his main character, an ex-Cop (again Irish) with typical right wing disdain for complexity or balanced understanding. His character as a cop confidently points out that people only focused on the beating Rodney King took, not the resisting arrest that wasn’t captured on tape. Whilst this might be true, the whole story reads like an apology of the LAPD. The message seems to be that there were good and bad black people and that as a whole black people had no right to be angry at the verdict. Only the bad ones were. The story is splattered through with Martin Luther King quotations but unaware of the irony that the narrator allows no space for black people to feel angry at their condition or treatment and presents the only good black people as having no opinion on the events in question. The Toole-avatar here is the spearhead for the point – when someone asks him for money referencing Rodney King, his character says back to her face that the beating was the best thing that ever happened to Rodney King. So, this guy is an asshole, right? No actually he’s the hero. Much of the book is this character’s battle against some completely evil hoodlums that rape, kill, rob and shit (literally, they defecate in a woman’s restaurant to show her who’s boss) their way through the story. The same hero is also shown beating up a woman (an ex-prositute the narrator tells us as if this is a further condemnation) when she attacks him. What is it with Toole characters and old men beating up women and presenting it as something to be proud of? The woman is killed callously “off screen” in another narratorial side comment. The Toole character and the narrator seem to be in cahoots, in complete agreement about everything. Only the reader is left to scream, “Wait, no, I don’t agree”. In facing down the evil gang, the Toole avatar uses racial slurs to their faces….which is kind of a right wing argument that these words are ok because you only use them against people you hate, like any other words. It’s like looking into the mind of a horrible, horrible person. Unlike many of the other stories, this one is actually well written in parts (“Henry Puddin Pye cooked in the sun for an hour and a half”) but the content is just ugh.
So to sum up,
BARBRADY Yes, at first, I was happy to be learning how to read. It seemed exciting and magical. But then I read this -- Barbrady holds up a copy of ATLAS SHRUGGED, by Ayn Rand. All 1085 pages of it. BARBRADY Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. I read every last word of this garbage and because of this piece of SHIT, I'm never reading again! STAN AND KYLE Hurrah for Barbrady!!!