Sunday, April 20, 2008

Harry Crews, "The Knockout Artist" (1988).

It's really a shame that when Harry Crews was recommended to me fifteen years ago that The Knockout Artist wasn't the title lent to me. If it had been, I likely wouldn't have put the author aside for as long as I have. A Feast of Snakes (1974) was mildly entertaining, but I thought it exposed the author as a gritty pulp-meister who had a limited ability to build substantial characterization. Everybody who appeared in that book came off as cartoon stereotypes. My experience with Classic Crews (a collection of some of his earliest works) put him back on the map of quality Southern scribes, as far as I was concerned. I decided I had made a hasty judgment and sought out one of his most critically-acclaimed works.

The Knockout Artist tells the story of Eugene Biggs, a Georgian farm boy who strikes out for bigger adventures in the city. He travels to New Orleans and meets a trainer named Budd, who schools him in the fine art of fisticuffs. Eugene quickly ascends the ranks of the local fight scene, and begins to get some opportunities to meet tougher opponents. Although he lacks the ability to put his man on the canvas, he is wickedly deft and able to shuck-and-jive his way to many victories on points. As long as he is successful he receives the admiration and attention of his adopted father figure. But then he gets clocked by a power punch, and his tragic flaw is exposed (he has a weak chin). He can't beat the count and loses his first match. The floodgate now open, he loses three subsequent bouts and is dropped by his manager/trainer. On his way out the door, Budd retorts that Eugene could probably knock himself out. In frustration, the young fighter does just that.

Left alone and abandoned on the street in the most insidious Southern port, Eugene finds his way waiting tables at a restaurant. It is there that he catches the eye of a young socialite named Charity. She is a beautiful, vibrant, and intelligent girl who has a suspicious interest in bedding Eugene. It is soon revealed that Charity is close to receiving her doctorate in psychology, and has an academic interest in the grittier, lowlier class of people- such as washed-up young boxers. While Eugene does indeed feel patronized by the attentions of Charity, he has also become cynical and is lacking quality alternative options. Not only does he bed Charity, but he actually allows her to put him up in a fancy apartment. Thus begins a relationship that carries us to the main events in the book.

Somehow Charity has convinced Eugene to perform his inimitable self-knockout trick in front of paying audiences. She has arranged for him to be compensated well for his efforts. In return, she requests only that he allow her to document his life-story via tape recorder while they have sex. While he doesn't cotton to having his brain picked and battered, he does find both money and Charity attractive, and so agrees to the arrangement. Through these public appearances, Eugene comes into contact with some of the seedier denizens of New Orleans, and the story widens to include additional subplots. The main thread finds Eugene and a friend taking up a Cajun youth in order to make him into a champion fighter in his own right.

What makes The Knockout Artist impressive is the vast range of characters Crews is able to bring to life. Far from being limited to the depiction of working class toughs and outcasts, this book presents a wide range of folks, freakish in varying degrees in outward appearance and/or psychological makeup. While everybody is distorted at some level, their humanity is drawn broadly enough so there is virtually no one without redeeming qualities. There was a certain complexity to these personalities that I found largely absent in Crews' other books. Although there were plenty of bleak and depressing events in the narrative, The Knockout Artist contains a germ of hope- which seems to be a rare discovery within the works of this author. Perhaps Crews was merely mellowing in his advancing age, but I enjoyed the compassion he bestowed upon his protagonist. It made the book more than just ugly.

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