From our Late to the Party desk:
The hardworking staff finally read the New York Times review of At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing (co-edited by redoubtable local scribe George Kimball). The anthology includes pretty much everyone you’d expect, the legendary A.J. Liebling chief among them. (“Some sportswriters today feel he was a bit de trop, but Liebling’s richly ironic musings on Doc Kearns, Dempsey’s manager, are jaw-dropping.”)
And more from the Times review:
Even as some people are counting out the sport, this book provides a canon of American boxing literature, including work by the likes of Pete Hamill, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, David Remnick, Budd Schulberg and Gay Talese. The classics are all contained within the covers of “At the Fights,” but there are dozens of other sparkling pieces.
But one name was conspicuously missing from the review. So the hardworking staff trundled up to the Brookline Booksmith to see if it was also missing from the book.
The great W.C. Heinz is represented in At the Fights by his 1951 piece for True magazine, “Brownsville Bum,” which Jimmy Breslin called “the greatest magazine story I’ve ever read, bar none,” the book notes.
(Along similar lines, Ernest Hemingway called Heinz’s novel The Professional “the only good novel I’ve ever read about a fighter and an excellent first novel in its own right.”)
Representative samples from “Brownsville Bum, which chronicles the fighting life and antic times of one Al (Bummy) Davis:
Bummy walked out and they moved around for almost a minute and then Bummy feinted his hook. When he did [Schoolboy] Friedkin moved over and Bummy threw the right and Friedkin’s head went back and down he went with his legs in the air in his own corner. That was all the fighting there was that night.
* * * * *
[H]e was in the candy store on day when an argument started between Bummy and a guy named Mersky. Nobody is going to say who started the argument but somebody called Bummy a lousy fighter and it wasn’t Bummy. Somebody flipped a piece of hard candy in Bummy’s face, too, and that wasn’t Bummy either, and after Bummy got done bouncing Mersky up and down Mersky went to the hospital and had some pictures taken and called the cops.
The most amazing thing about this piece, besides the fact that it fits together like a pocket watch, is that Heinz only saw Bummy fight once and wrote the story without ever meeting him.
At the Fights quotes Heinz saying this about “Brownsville Bum:” “If the piece proves anything it is that if you are fortunate enough to find the right people who are perceptive enough and sensitive enough, you can stil come to know a man.”
I was fortunate enough to interview Bill Heinz ten years ago in his Dorset, Vermont home. (2008 radio commentary here.) He talked about being a World War II correspondent and his “unpayable” debt to the soldiers fighting and dying all around him. ( “For the writer, implanted weaponless in war,” Heinz once wrote, “his two personal enemies are his guilt and his fear, and after a while it was only our guilt that sent us out against our fear.”
And he talked about his preference for boxing above other sports:
Now I gravitated to boxing because I found the comradeship between fighters in Stoney’s gym and elsewhere, very similar to the comradeship I found among GI’s in battle during the war. They were both experiencing things that were difficult to take.
. . . although I’m a great admirer of football and what it brings, I’m a great admirer of team sports, there’s always somebody else you can lay it off on and you can’t lay it off in a fight.
At the Fights looks like a terrific anthology. Virtually everything Heinz wrote (including co-authoring M*A*S*H) is terrific.
Have a good read.