A writer’s greatest fear is to die on the cusp of finishing his novel. Either the unedited manuscript never sees the light of day or family and friends with the best intentions end up bastardizing it.
When F.X. Toole went into the hospital for emergency surgery in 2002, he took his 900-page manuscript of his novel, Pound for Pound, with him. His last words were, “Doc, get me just a little more time, I gotta finish my book.”
He had written all of his life, but Toole’s first work of fiction was only published two years before his death. The short story collection, Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner was released in 2000. Toole’s vulnerable, hard-edged prose earned him critical praise and gave him the opportunity to write the novel he was desperately trying to finish. Three of the short stories, “The Monkey Look,” “Million $$$ Baby,” and “Frozen Water,” were purchased and adapted for a screenplay, which became “Million Dollar Baby.” The movie, which starred Clint Eastwood, Hillary Swank, and Morgan Freeman, was a box-office smash and won Best Picture at the 2005 Academy Awards.
Toole would not live to see all of that success. He passed away on September 2, 2002, not getting that extra time to finish his novel.
Because of the success of Rope Burns, Toole’s novel would not end up locked in the filing cabinet. His novel went to his children and his literary agent Nat Sobel, who in turn brought in freelance editor James Wade to bring Toole’s vision to fruition.
If I heard this story in a bookstore, I would have purchased Pound for Pound immediately and tried my hardest to enjoy it. Fortunately, Toole never made the reader work hard to like or appreciate his work, and Sobel and Wade have done his storytelling justice.
As with Rope Burns, Toole gives the reader a tour of boxing that only those who work in the sport have ever seen. Toole, whose real name was Jerry Boyd, worked as a professional boxing cutman, among many professions, before becoming a writer. While many boxing novels feature colorful boxing commissioners, skuzzy trainers, distractive women, and dank gyms, the detail Toole provides leaves the reader both empathetic and fascinated.
The story focuses on two main characters that begin their journey thousands of miles from each other. Dan Cooley is a former fighter who came within one elimination bout of earning a title shot. Upon retiring, he opened a gym in Los Angeles and became a highly respected trainer. A widower who lost all three of his children to individual tragedies, Dan’s greatest enjoyment comes from training his grandson, Tim Pat, his only surviving relative.
The other main character, Eduardo “Chicky” Garza y Duffy, is a 17-year-old amateur fighter growing up in Poteet, Texas, a town on the outskirts of San Antonio. Left with his grandparents by his prostitute mother, Chicky was taught to box by his alcoholic grandfather, Eloy. A former fighter himself, known all around San Antonio as Lobo, the Wolf, Eloy is the only family Chicky has left. The young amateur is put under the tutelage of Trini and Paco Cavazo, two mediocre trainers who deal drugs on the side. Despite the distractions and the disadvantages, Chicky is a welterweight with a middleweight’s punch. His goal is to win the amateur regional tournaments in San Antonio. The only question is whether or not he has the people around him who can make that happen.
It is obvious that both Chicky and Dan will meet at some point or another in the book. However, Toole uses many different means to avoid the easy clichés that boxing fiction can fall prey to. First, he takes his time in telling the story, peeling back a different layer to each character as the book progresses. In doing so, the book becomes much more character-driven than plot-driven. The story’s most dramatic moments do not take place in the ring, and just when you think the book is in danger of becoming a retread, Toole’s narrative subtly leans in another direction.
The freshness of the story comes in the characteristics and the author’s knowledge of the sport and its players. His level of knowledge of the sport shows through in Pound for Pound just as it did in Rope Burns. Any reader with just a limited amount of boxing knowledge will see amateur tournaments, promoters, and, even training, in a different light.
In the forward, hardboiled crime writer James Ellroy praised Toole for his insight, saying Rope Burns “was dead rich in details that only a right man could know.” Ellroy also describes once meeting Toole, saying that he “held his mud,” and that his level of conversation, like his literary output, never went beyond the fight game.
And that point is the most bittersweet aspect of reading Toole’s work. With just one short story collection and one novel, he gave us some of the best boxing fiction the literary world and the silver screen have ever seen. Yet one cannot help but wonder what he would have accomplished had he had a little more time.