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Viet Nam Generation
Journal & Newsletter

V4, N1-2 (April 1992)

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Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing

Dolphin/Doubleday, New York, 1987

Reviewed by Dan Duffy

Here's a handsome book, On Boxing, by Joyce Carol Oates, 118 pp. "Acknowledgments" (a ten-item bibliography; there are several additional useful citations in the easily-scanned text), many fine b & w photos by John Ranard, of gym, locker-room and ring scenes. The text is worked up from Oates' articles in the New York Times Magazine June 16, 1985 and the Ontario Review Fall/Winter 1986. Nice cover photo of champ in white robe exultant, big- eyed author head shot on back flap by Jerry Bauer, blurbs from Russell Banks, Elizabeth Hardwick, Edward Hoagland, Sandra M. Gilbert, and Gay Talese. That solemn style of title, "On XXX," is simply a cataloguing device from Alexandria. The librarian would label the scrolls that way. Who knows, maybe our great-grandchildren will put a Dewey Decimal number on their books as a nice touch.

A blemish on page 65: "The history of boxing--of fighting--in America is very much one with the history of the black man in America. It hardly needs be said that the armed services of recent times are comprised, for the most part, of black youths; the majority of soldiers who fought, and died, in Vietnam were black." I guess she means well. Most of the soldiers who died in Viet Nam were Viets. The majority of the total number of U.S. soldiers who died in Viet Nam plus those who died elsewhere of wounds received in Viet Nam were white. Most of today's U.S. armed services personnel are not Afro-American.

What the celebrated fiction writer is getting at is the proposition that black Americans died in fighting in Viet Nam out of all proportion to their representation in the total U.S. population. For debate and fine points on that thesis, see "Age, Ethnicity and Class in the Viet Nam War: Evidence from the Casualties file" by Brady Foust and Howard Botts, pp. 22031 in Vol. 3, No. 4 of this newsletter, and David Anderson's paper at the last SHAFR conference, reported by Bob Brigham on page 8 of Vol. 3, No. 3. If there's any question in your mind whether a black male American is more likely than a white male American to have to struggle physically against violent death in order to safeguard privileged people, maybe you should get a job.

Oates' boxing book isn't bad, but it sure isn't good. It does touch on most of the things you'd want to tell someone about boxing, though she passes up the great Muhammed Ali antiwar stories for some reason. She does harsh on Ali for ducking so much, and retells the Graziano stories, so I guess she likes brutes. She doesn't like New Yorker fight reporter A.J. Liebling's sense of humor, so maybe I should play the rest of this straight and hard. The book came out of the typewriter of a sensitive fan of professional boxing, with some mindless research slapping in titles and authors and numbers after her anecdotes and observations. The casualties error is just one of many solemn factoids. There's a riff on the economics of boxing that would make any bookkeeper send Oates home for her shopping bag of receipts. She equates winnings with salary, for instance.

Aside from a loose grip on quantity, the rest of the book doesn't do much for me because I don't like watching pro boxing. I do like participating in amateur boxing, and I dislike authors who figure boxers as the unknowable other, who suppose that they themselves, life's authors, will never struggle with their bodies against an enemy. Most of us die by accident, disease, or decay, and most women and children get beaten up many times, for god's sake. We all have to use our bodies in a struggle we lose. What's charming about a fighter is that he steps into the ring young and strong, to fight an enemy he can beat, who almost certainly cannot give him any injury that a month's convalescence won't clear up.

There are gender issues at play in my reporting on Oates writing about feeling separate from boxers that maybe Cynthia Fuchs could straighten out. There's a generational issue, too: the college women I came up with can fight if they want to. I have a female friend who fought in a martial arts movie when she was a teenager, but it wouldn't be fair to pretend Oates had that opportunity. That doesn't change my basic point--boxing isn't the location of violence in life, but a place to perform limited violence in an attractive way. To screw things up more, Oates was lovingly initiated as a spectator of ritual violence by her father, a fight fan, a paying subscriber to Ring.

So I'll just use her to stand on and give a speech. The physicians of the American Medical Association want to outlaw boxing for the same reason that U.S. journalists really think that a terrorist is morally worse than a bomber pilot. The terrorist cuts off an old man's head to make a point (or to stick it on one), while the bomber pilot incinerates whole families as an incident to his mission. Jabiya Dragonsun told me last week about riding home from Viet Nam speechless besides a flier who was sounding off about how awfully violent grunts are. Intent is important in the U.S. If you swing on a cop and miss, you've still assaulted an officer, because you wanted to hit him. In Texas, a white man can shoot a man of any other race for just standing on his porch, if the citizen thinks that the dead guy intended to break in. Just so, the pilot isn't a killer because he doesn't intend to kill.

Well, in boxing you climb into the ring to kill the other man with your fists. As it happens, he is trying to do the same to you, so there is hardly ever even a nose broken. People break major bones on every ski resort every weekend, but since the intent in skiing is to spend a lot of money and consume petrochemicals and wilderness while achieving an illusion of individual freedom, skiing is not a violent sport. Every game of football hurts more people worse than every boxing card, pro or amateur, but the point of football is to celebrate mindless competition and sell advertising, so football is okay.

I don't fight, by the way, I just work out with the guys, and go to their matches. I'm a sport, one of the well-to-do adventurers like Oates who have always been a part of boxing. See Elliott J. Gorn's awesome 20th century research workup of 19th century prizefighting, The Manly Art (Cornell U Press, 1986). Gorn has a disciple, whose name I can't find, an Afro-American scholar who wrote his own overstuffed piece to show that pro fighting is not in fact a remunerative enterprise for the black community. Honestly, I think the kids in my gym know that. They're just trying to have fun in a warm room where no one bigger than them is going to hit them, where no one has a gun.

There are all kinds of interesting boxing books, from mad compendia to stirring novels, and Oates' essay lists a lot of them. The novel the literati fight aficionados talk about the most is Leonard Gardner's Fat City. My favorite is The Broken Place (New American Library, 1968), by tank-town boxer WWII and Korea paratroop vet Michael Shaara, who wrote the Pulitzer novel Killer Angels (McKay, 1974), about Gettysburg. The Broken Place deals with the decade-long fight career and return to life of a BAR man in Korea who decided to stay behind on a fallback maneuver, kill a lot of dinks and die, and unfortunately woke up the next morning alive behind a pile of dead people. Boxers and veterans and writers: most adults have to work for a living at punishing jobs, and most authors don't, and I think there will always be books of problematic charm coming out of these facts of life.

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