Monday, December 17, 2012

The Abysmal Brute by Jack London

Not your average boxing story
The Abysmal Brute is a boxing novel by Jack London, originally published in 1913. Over the course of his career, London wrote a handful of very good boxing stories. His gritty, naturalistic writing style is well-suited to the sport, and he always finds a clever way to approach the ring from an unexpected angle, never settling for the typically formulaic, underdog-overcomes-adversity-to-win-the-championship story line.

Young Pat Glendon, the protagonist of The Abysmal Brute, is anything but an underdog. As London describes him, he may very well be the greatest boxer who ever lived. The son of a former champ, Young Pat is a proverbial “babe in the woods” who is brought out of the wilderness to embark on a big-city prizefighting career. This young Hercules of the forest has been blessed with a remarkable physical strength and prodigious natural talents that have been polished to brilliance under the tutelage of his father. A sensitive young man more disposed toward reading poetry than pugilism, Pat shows little enthusiasm for his new vocation. Stubener, the lucky man chosen to manage this ultimate fighter, finds himself charged with the difficult task of finding challenging opponents, while shielding the young man’s innocent eyes from the corruption and graft which pervades the entire system of fight promotion.

In addition to possessing an obviously profound knowledge of his subject, London exhibits a true love for boxing. His enthusiasm is infectious, even to the reader who otherwise cares little for the sport. The detailed, naturalistic descriptions of boxing matches, the people who fight them, and the combat strategy involved really creates the feeling of being in the ring with the contenders. The vivid realism is somewhat counteracted by the fact that London makes his hero into such a superman that his perfection defies believability. On the other hand, with a little updating this book could easily be turned into a Hollywood movie (where defying believability is commonplace).

When compared to London’s other boxing stories, The Abysmal Brute is on a par with London’s other boxing novel, The Game, but not as compelling as his excellent short stories “A Piece of Steak” and “The Mexican,” which are far more dark and serious in tone. Though there’s a sprinkling of London’s pet philosophical themes throughout the story—evolution, nature vs. nurture, the individual vs. the system, rebellion against injustice—overall this novel has a relatively light-hearted feel. The Abysmal Brute is a brief and entertaining read with enough unexpected turns in its plot to qualify it as a pleasant surprise.

The paperback edition from Bison books features an introductory essay by Michael Oriard that puts the book into historical context and gives the reader a good picture of the boxing world of a hundred years ago. Oriard also addresses the issue of whether or not London was a racist, and the role of race in boxing at the turn of the century.

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