Sebastian's Reviews > On Boxing

On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates
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Dec 29, 08

Read in December, 2008

The first half of this book is outstanding. In a lengthy essay, Oates ruminates on boxing from a number of fascinating angles, discussing issues including idealized masculinity, the appeal of violence, the draw of the sport on writers, and the experience of being a true "other" watching a boxing match. While she sometimes seems to be making overbroad generalizations, even when she swings and misses this is a hugely entertaining and interesting impressionistic take on boxing.

The next portion, a relatively lengthy essay on Mike Tyson is similarly strong. Oates meets Tyson near his (today almost unimaginably high) peak, interviews him, watches tape of his fights, and draws a flattering, though not sugar coated, portrait of a troubled boy who became a genius in the ring. Because of the wealth of negative press coverage concerning Tyson in the past decade (most of which, in fairness, he brought upon himself due to criminal conduct, irrational behavior, and lackluster boxing), it's hard to remember just what a phenomenon he was. I think this section, in which Oates senses the intelligence in the man, and his understanding of his role as an entertainer, a modern gladiator, as well as his historical context, would have made a fine full length book.

However, at the end of this essay, the book starts to come unraveled. The structure of the book (a collection of previously published essays) is part of the problem -- there is a huge amount of repetition from section to section (full quotes and accounts of events are copied and pasted wholesale from one section to the next), and even within each essay. The entire book could do with editing to improve its flow. For example, I'm not sure why the phrase "sui generis" (clearly one of Oates' crutches) has to be used about 6 times in the space of 10 pages.

Oates follows with a lackluster analysis of Muhammad Ali, which for a relatively informed reader brings little new to the table. Oates' profile fails to capture what made Ali so truly unique and special and instead relies on well known anecdotes about the man.

Her section on Jack Johnson is enlightening and makes me want to pick up Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. Johnson was Ali decades before the latter man was born, and he remains one of the most captivating and controversial figures in sports history.

Finally, Oates includes a review of Beyond Glory, the chronicle of the climatic second fight between Joe Lewis and Max Scheling. Having read Beyond Glory, I can highly recommend it, and I don't think Oates' review adds much of consequence to the subject.

I wanted to love this book, and I did for the first 180 pages, but the patchwork style of the essays and laziness of the editing, as well as the lack of true insight into events and fighters better covered by more significant books make this a three star review.
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