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Trust Me On This : As True as a Crisp Left Hook

<i> Schulian, a television writer and producer, is a former syndicated sports columnist and the author of "Writers' Fighters and Other Sweet Scientists." </i>

He gave our sergeant major’s teen-aged daughter the clap. Some weeks afterward, as if to illustrate the breadth of his interests, he told me about a novel no literate man could live without reading, a novel about boxing’s small-time losers called “Fat City.” This was the Army in 1969: just as boggled and maddening as everything else about a country rent by forces it couldn’t comprehend. And the soldier who led me to “Fat City” has come to represent it in my memories. I can’t recall his name, but I do remember his off-kilter smile and his mean, crazy eyes. That, and what wonderful taste he had in books.

It wasn’t until 15 years later that I got my hands on “The Professional,” which is about honor, dignity and strength of character in the least likely of settings, the fight racket. I’d heard about it ever since I started writing sports for a living, mostly from guys who pointed to its ex-sportswriter author as proof there was life beyond the press box. While I’m sure each of them loved “The Professional” in his own way, I doubt they can match my passion when I say it is the only novel I would put on the same shelf with “Fat City.”

They are, with all due respect to “The Harder They Fall,” the best boxing novels I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, both are out of print, and I’m probably not doing anything to remedy that situation by calling them boxing novels. The description suggests subjects who are Neanderthals with nothing on their minds but deviating each other’s septums, and in these two cases, that is as wrong as rain. For “Fat City” and “The Professional” depict men whose savage calling makes it all too easy to forget their vulnerability, their tenderness, their despair.

Leonard Gardner wrote “Fat City” as a moody elegy to the wayward dreamers who fight in tank-town arenas, then retreat to flophouses and shotgun weddings, day labor and rotgut drinking binges.

There is no championship at stake here, no cable-TV money, no Vegas fling. There is only the bleak skyline of Stockton, Calif., and the restored hope that an alcoholic fry cook named Billy Tully clings to after winning a one-punch bar fight. Billy used to be a boxer, a pro, and now he vows to become one again. His first time back in the gym, though, Billy gets cuffed around by Ernie Munger, a raw kid who dreams of a life beyond pumping gas. Instead, it is a siren’s song. To desperate men, boxing has always seemed a salvation, and Billy and Ernie are as desperate as they come.

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Billy is haunted by the drunken prattling of his barfly girl friend, a creature so far gone that he ultimately sleeps in an incinerator rather than share a bed with her. Ernie is saddled by a wife he would rather not have, a girl he wanted as his first romantic conquest, not asthe mother of his child. And the only chance for escape Billy and Ernie can see is a trainer whose devotion to them is diluted by his advice to “pace yourself, but don’t pace yourself.”

Every time I reread “Fat City,” I wonder if Leonard Gardner lived the life. In 183 pages without an ounce of fat on them, he told a story as real as the smell of sweat, a story made that much more pungent by pitch-perfect dialogue. But what Gardner captured best was the sense of desolation consuming Billy: “No one was worth the gift of his life, no one could possibly be worth that. It belonged to him alone and he did not deserve it either, because he was letting it waste. It was getting away from him and he made no effort to stop it. He did not know how.”

It’s still hard for me to believe, but Gardner has never written another novel. The only works that bear his name are two screenplays --one for the beautiful little movie John Huston made of “Fat City"-- and a smattering of boxing essays for Esquire, Sport and Inside Sports. The word that filtered back from his editors at those magazines was that Gardner was slow. Painfully, agonizingly slow. So maybe writing just hurt too much for him to do it at novel length again. Or maybe “Fat City” was the only novel he had in him.

The one-man, one-novel theory certainly applies to W.C. Heinz and “The Professional,” but nobody ever asked if Heinz had trouble getting his muse to sing. For he established a reputation for productivity in the grind-it-out world of journalism, first as a New York Sun sports columnist who held his own with Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, then as a magazine writer who applied the techniques of fiction to his work when Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson were in swaddling clothes. Heinz eventually turned to nonfiction books, writing one with a surgeon and another with football legend Vince Lombardi, but there was always a novel inside him. A love story, really. It was about a fighter who loved the intricacies of his craft, and a manager who loved the fighter for being a noble workman, and a writer who loved them both for the purity they brought to the red-light district of sports.

When “The Professional” was published 34 years ago, Ernest Hemingway praised it as “the only good novel about a fighter I’ve ever read.” Of course, he may have been influenced by the fact that Heinz adopted a decidedly Hemingwayesque style, right down to a sentence that reads, “It was a fine, clean morning.” But Papa wasn’t blowing smoke. “The Professional” pulls away from the pack with its portrait of a fighter as an essentially decent human being struggling to manage his real-life baggage.

You may not believe such fighters exist, particularly in the Mike Tyson era, but they do. I have known them, and that is why I believe the truth of Heinz’s Eddie Brown wholeheartedly. Eddie has a wife who dreads his brutal business, an epileptic son who gets swept away by bursts of manic energy, and buddies from the old neighborhood in New York who can’t help reminding him of the days when life was as simple as a street fight. There couldn’t be a worse time for such distractions. Eddie is training for his first shot at the world middleweight championship, and he needs his head clear to make up for his short supply of physical gifts. It is his head, you see, that has carried him this far.

Eddie is the fighter that crusty, sagacious Doc Carroll has been waiting to manage all his life, and Doc has been in the business since before there was dirt. Though Doc has never gone this far before, he wouldn’t be making the trip now if he didn’t think Eddie could handle it. Doc’s a tough old bird--hates TV, won’t let Eddie shake hands with strangers, refuses to risk puffing up his ego by calling him “The Pro” to his face. But the toughness comes from the heart, and Frank Hughes, a magazine writer chronicling Eddie’s march to the title fight, can’t miss realizing that heart is what both Eddie and Doc are all about. If Hughes ever thought he could remain a detached observer on this assignment, he was wrong. He is their friend, so he must take the good that comes with that, and the bad, too.

Bill Heinz must have known the feeling when he was writing sports. It is virtually impossible to escape sooner or later no matter how honest and objective a journalist tries to be. But with his novel, Heinz didn’t have to mask his emotions the way he would have at ringside. After writing the first sentence of the chapter about Eddie’s big fight, he spent the rest of the day walking through the woods near his home, summoning the courage to go on.

I loved that story no matter how many times I heard Red Smith tell it, and I love “The Professional” even more. Sometimes, of course, I fear that mine is a lonely passion, but there always turns out to be someone else who shares it. The latest is Walter Matthau, or so I was told by a friend who reported that Matthau is pained that “The Professional” hasn’t been made into a movie. Yes, and Leonard Gardner should have written more novels than “Fat City,” too. But maybe hurting a little bit is part of loving these books. You hurt, and then you adopt the philosophy passed on to me by an old fight guy: What you want and what you get don’t always come on the same bus.

Trust Me on This is an occasional feature in which writers make a case for that forgotten, obscure or unsung book that they put in everyone’s hands with the words: “Read this. You’ll love it. Trust me on this.” “The Professional” and “Fat City” are out of print; check your local library or used book dealer.


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