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Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Casual Critic — F.X. Toole's Rope Burns

More short stories centered around boxing wasn't really what I had in mind not far removed from reading some of Hemingway's work focused on the sport. But F.X. Toole’s Rope Burns was what I had lying around, and a very strong intro from the author that reminded me of some of the reasons I came to love boxing convinced me to forge ahead.

This collection was anchored by the title story, which probably fits more into the category of novella, and “Million $$$ Baby,” the basis of the movie starring Clint Eastwood. Both offer unexpected twists, and while each has varying degrees of violence, they offer stories that do more than praise the sweet science as a noble if flawed sport.

“Rope Burns” follows a group of individuals of various race who are tied together largely through boxing in the tumultuous days surrounding the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. The story offers a look at racial tensions that isn't completely unique but reads well anyway. The characters are the best in the collection, and a violent end is memorable, though the writer over reaches here and there.

“Million Dollar Baby” takes a mid-story twist that is truly unexpected. I would have liked just a bit more of the relationship between the reluctant trainer and the female fighter he eventually views as the first with the chance to make a million dollars. The violence that leaves him with an impossible choice is a bit too understated for me. Regardless, the ending lets the reader truly feel for both characters.

“Fightin' in Philly” goes a little bit beyond the rest of the remaining stories. It focuses on the nuances of boxing like the others, but the bond between fighter, trainer, and the “cut man” brings it to a slightly higher level. An excursion by Con, the “cut man,” to catch an art exhibit in Philadelphia was a fun glimpse into the human side of a grizzled veteran boxing man.

Rope Burns is rounded out by “The Monkey Look,” “Black Jew,” and “Frozen Water.” All three are decent, fairly easy reading, and offer nuances of the sport and enough story around the less-than-glamorous side of boxing to keep fans plenty entertained. Though “Frozen Water” stands out among the three, their similarities make things a touch dull.

Overall, Rope Burns is probably for the true fan of boxing, but I'd suggest even non-boxing fans can read it for fun while looking for something better.

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