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On Boxing Paperback – August 29, 2006
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Yes, the same Joyce Carol Oates who packs one of the most lethal punches in American literature also happens to be an astute observer of the sweet science. Oates filters her knockout collection of essays through multifaceted prisms of art, history, sexuality, and politics to directly confront and explore boxing's physical and commercial brutality, but also the sense of human struggle and survival that's at boxing's purest core. "In the boxing ring," she writes, "man is in extremis, performing an atavistic rite ... for the mysterious solace of those who can participate only vicariously in such drama: the drama of life in the flesh. Boxing has become America's tragic theater." And from her ringside perspective, Oates, a true heavyweight of letters, analyzes the performances just brilliantly. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Library Journal
A fight fan since her youth, novelist Oates follows in the tradition of boxing-loving writers like Hemingway and Mailer. In a slim volume expanded from a New York Times Magazine article, she candidly assays "The Sweet Science" for its spectacle, aesthetic elements, and its history from ancient Greece and Rome to today's ring dominated by callous promoters, casinos, and TV. Oates concedes boxing's brutality and often seamy side but finds positive merits as tragic theater. Good fare for fans and haters alike, especially those who have read Thomas Hauser's The Black Lights ( LJ 10/15/85) and Sam Toperoff's Sugar Ray Leonard and Other Noble Warriors ( LJ 11/1/86). Morey Berger, Monmouth Cty. Lib., Freehold, N.J.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
I am a serious amateur fighter and a sparring partner to the professional fighters I train with. I do gym work or road work five days a week with a former-professional trainer who was also a two-time NY Golden Gloves champion and junior Olympian. I spar Glovers and pros and I love it. I understand boxing and the love for boxing. The gist of my review here is this: After I read this book I realized I didn't understand my love for boxing -- where it comes from and what it all means and what it is I'm doing exactly -- as well as Joyce Carol Oates does. This woman is amazing to me. I've never read her fiction, but I will.
The first section of this book, the one in which Oates seemingly tries to take on boxing and what it means from every imaginable angle, is best. This is one of those very, very few books that made me fold down corners so that I can easily return to specific passages. I don't know if non-fighters will really understand this book, or if many fighters will ever bother to read it. But I'm damned glad I did and damned glad Ms. Oates is out there writing.
But as Oates explains in her 1987 collection of essays (revised in 1994), "On Boxing":"No one whose interest began as mine did in childhood--as an offshot of my father's interest is likely to think of boxing as something else, a metaphor...Life is like boxing, in many respects. But boxing is only like boxing."
Oates is a boxing fan and a great writer and it was inevitable that these two facets of her life would converge.
"On Boxing" is really 3 separate essays: "On Boxing," "On Mike Tyson" and "The Cruelest Sport."
The first essay is so crammed full of fascinating, revelatory statements about the nature and function and the social and psychological nature of boxing that it is hard to pick out only a few to quote here. But I will try: "To enter the ring near-naked and to risk one's life is to make of one's audience voyeurs of a kind: boxing is so intimate. It is to ease out of sanity's consciousness and into another, difficult to name. It is to risk, and sometimes to realize, the agony of which "agon" (Greek, "contest") is the root."
In Oates view, the boxer brings more than his body to bear in the ring...he also brings his soul: "There are some boxers possessed of such remarkable intuition, such uncanny prescience, one would think they were somehow recalling their fights, not fighting them as we watch."
"On Boxing" the essay is also a boxing history lesson highlighting the careers of Jack Dempsey,Joe Louis, Muhammed Ali,Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, etc.: their careers, their boxing styles, their defeats and in some cases their lives after the boxing ring: "the drama of life in the flesh. Boxing has become America's tragic theater."
The second essay, "On Mike Tyson," written in 1988 predates all of Tyson's legal troubles, court cases and incarceration. And so Oates, who had extensive access to Tyson, writes of his home,his dog and his friends in glowing terms.With Oates, Tyson is soft-spoken, courteous, sensitive, thoughtful and intospective. Things that in 2002 we do not normally associate with Mike Tyson. Never a pushover, Oates also quotes Tyson after his 1986 fight with the hapless Jesse Ferguson, whose nose was broken in the match, "I want to punch the bone into the brain...Tyson's language is as direct and brutal as his ring style, yet as more than one observer has noted, strangely disarming--there is no air of menace, or sadism, or boastfulness in what he says: only the truth."
Oates also speaks of a boxing match as a "catharsis" as Aristotle wrote: "the purging of pity and terror by the exercise of these emotions; the subliminal aftermath of classical tragedy."
The third essay, "The Cruelest Sport" details in part the physical toll of boxing. For example the 1980 Ali/Holmes fight in which Ali takes a tremendous beating from Holmes: in Sylvester Stallone's words, the fight was "like watching an autopsy on a man who's still alive." This as well as the Ali/Foreman fight in Zaire in 1974 began irreversible loss for Ali: progressive deterioration of Ali's kidneys, hands, reflexes and stamina.
"On Boxing" is Joyce Carol Oates's Ode to Boxing and by extension her father's interest in boxing, the smokiness of the arena, the smell of the hair oil and the hot dogs.And, even if you are not a boxing fan you cannot help but revel at the insights and amazing depth of feeling she brings to this subject and it's denizens.
Joyce Carol Oates at first seems like an odd choice as an expert on the sport. A frail academic known for her moving stories of family interaction, she wouldn't at first strike you as a devotee to a sport that most academics abhor. But she is a lifelong fan. Her father was a fan and it seems that it runs in the blood. She's been going to matches and watching them on film since she was a young girl, and due to her thoughtful approach and extraordinary access she manages to coax the true spirit of the athletes from a myriad of interviews.
Many spectacular authors have written about the sport. Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and A.J. Liebling are a few that come to mind. None of those giants bring to the sport a cautious sensitivity that Oates does. Her prose are so rich that when reading this book, I had to frequently set it down and digest what I'd read. Like a rich chocolate, too much at one time would overload my senses, dulling me and causing me to miss nuance and ramble through the poetry. Her book is a treat, slowly and steadily read. It's a beautiful, sad, witty communique from someone who recognizes that we need the outlet, the raw power and relentless destruction that representatives of all of us can administer. Trained to the height of physical perfection, but unrestrained by conscience, boxers show us what we are all capable of doing, what we are all capable of enduring.
Her prose? Check this out:
"No sport is more physical, more direct, than boxing. No sport appears more powerfully homoerotic: the confrontation in the ring--the disrobing--the sweaty heated combat that is part dance, courtship, coupling--the frequent urgent pursuit by one boxer of the other in the fight's natural and violent movement toward the "knockout": surely boxing derives much of its appeal from this mimicry of a species of erotic love in which one man overcomes the other in an exhibition of superior strength and will. The heralded celibacy of the fighter-in-training is very much a part of boxing lore: instead of focusing his energies and fantasies upon a woman the boxer focuses them upon an opponent. Where Woman has been, Opponent must be."
This book, to me, is an inspirational, a prayer book, a series of thoughts meant to get me through life more positive and more in tune with my soul.
Livingstone Brambles, of whom I have acquaintance and of whom Oates writes glowingly, when told that she'd written about him in On Boxing said, "Man, she loves me."
Yes, she does, Champ. She loves all men who've donned gloves and tested their instincts in the ring, but more than most, she loves men like you who held nothing back, who gave their entire being over to training and instinct and sacrificed everything to survive and conquer. She loves you Livingstone, because you are who we all wish to be.