In 1979, Randy Bates was 34 and living in New Orleans. He was married with two children, had finished graduate school, seemed headed for a teaching career and was prodded by something between a premature mid-life crisis and a postponed adolescent itch. Instead of lighting out for the territory, he wandered into a municipally supported boxing gym on Magazine Street. Could he be a boxer, he wondered?
He'd expected to see the owner, Willie Pastrano, and hear that he was too old. Itch scratched, that would be that. Instead, he came upon an old black man, crippled in one leg and eating lunch at a battered school desk. Maybe, the man said.
Pastrano was a good boss, the old man told him. "But I runs the gym." In the month or two that Randy worked out under Collis Phillips, he saw how true that was. A locally esteemed fighter at one time, and later a celebrated trainer, Collis wielded a visible authority among the professionals at the gym. Bent over his crutches, he created an atmosphere of fierce attention. Nothing was more important than the angle of an attack, the position of a hand and relentless physical training. "If you loves youself you in the wrong game."
There was something more. Collis tells Cheetah, a prickly young black fighter, that he had managed to get matches in the old days, when blacks were all but excluded, because he kept in shape and gave a good show, "an' cause I knew how to get along with people. You hear me Cheetah." Cheetah couldn't hear it. That, as we shall see, is the heart of this extraordinary book.
Randy only lasted a couple of months trying to box; he didn't have the heart for it. The immeasurable distance between even a talented amateur and an untalented professional--between boxing and fighting--is compellingly set out, along with a rich picture of the world of gym fighters. But that is only a prologue to "Rings." The gym was simply where Randy glimpsed "what it was to have lived Collis' life."
The gym is where he glimpsed Collis as imperious master, and a Collis who tells his young adepts that they must learn to "get along." "Rings" is the story of a patriarch and his long autumn; of Collis and four generations of his descendants who precisely couldn't learn to "get along." In the 10 years spanned by this book, we meet one son who had outshone his father as a fighter, going mad in an Angola prison, where he was serving a life term. A second son is killed not long after he gets out of Angola, a third dies an alcoholic, a fourth had killed himself years before. And it was one of Collis' two daughters who had shot him in the leg and left him a cripple. There is a similar pattern of wrecked lives among many of the grandchildren; there are signs of one among the great-grandchildren.
"Rings" covers the 10 years that the author spent talking with Collis, his children and some of his grandchildren. An arrangement was made that the author and subject would each get 50% of any possible earnings. Considering the 10 years, and the probability that the book will not become a best seller--though it deserves to--no great profit seems likely. But the time spent was more than talk; it was the author's long effort to involve himself in the lives of the Phillipses; to help where he could and try to recognize where he couldn't. The effort was made out of a conviction that understanding without involvement is not only incomplete, but can easily become--a white man writing about a black family--exploitation.
It was precarious and risky, and the questions it raises, and the author's awareness of them, are themselves a key to the book. As we go along, it lets itself seem by turns admirable and awkward, superficial and profound, intrusive and compassionate, frustrating and fruitful.
Over the 10 years, with interruptions when a personal crisis or discouragement removed him from the task, Randy came across several short-term idealists who crossed paths with the Phillips clan, and who abandoned them for other projects. They were tourists; Randy was long-term. His book is not a tour but a journey, its end as uncertain as its departure, its passage supremely moving and revealing.
Revelation--always provisional--comes in the portraits of Collis and his descendants, none of whom is seen superficially, though some cloud up before we get very far. It comes in the image of the author, willing to show his own uncertainties, his high-strung temperament, his mistakes. It comes in its portrait of several generations of Southern African-Americans, and their shifting response to generations of a white power that shifts as well, but not enough.
The revelations come bit by bit, as in a slowly developing negative. Partly this is because Collis and his children do not say everything right off, nor ever, in fact. Partly it is because the author skips about, both chronologically and in his focus--now on Collis, now on each of the children, now on himself. He is writing search as well as discovery. Perplexing, even irritating at times, the method justifies itself as the story accumulates power without sacrificing complexity.
Collis has been a remarkable success. His father went north to send money south for his children's upbringing. From childhood, Collis worked hard delivering ice and newspapers, then in a foundry, then as a caddy in a white club, then as trusted chauffeur to several leading businessmen. They encouraged his boxing career; and Mike Cusimanno, a prominent white boxing manager, took him on as trainer.
Collis' achievement rested on two things: His own prodigious energy and his ability to get along with white people. He was a lord and a vassal at once; only his superiors were always white, and his inferiors always black. He masked the contradiction and tried to pass the formula on to his children. Sometimes the mask slipped; he could be violent at home. It was when he beat up a defiant son that Connie--his favorite daughter--shot him, and immediately moved north.
The formula, in any case, could not be passed along. The price in dignity and self-worth was too high, particularly by the 1960s when Collis' children were grown up. The relative success of the civil rights movement undermined Collis' message in one sense; drugs, crime and life in a housing project undermined it in another.
There is a shining portrait of Alvin, who turned to drug dealing when he became discouraged at not quite making the rank of contender for the middle-weight championship. The dealing was small scale; nevertheless, Louisiana's harsh laws sent him to Angola for life. In his disjointed speech when Randy visits him, we hear a baffled and abused purity. Even more heartbreaking is Farris, who seems a tower of strength. Writing from Angola, his words are those of a prophet; we know he will make it when he gets out. Instead, he disintegrates. Alvin's son, Alvin Jr., gets a 40-year sentence on several dubious charges, thanks to the bungling of an unscrupulous lawyer. Randy gets a friend to work on an appeal; Alvin is released and shows signs of adopting his grandfather's strategy of accommodation. Gloria, Collis' daughter, takes care of him and holds what she can of the family together. She is a heroine, but Randy never nudges us with it.
He sits with her at her own children's trials, one of them for double murder. He works to get better legal help; he looks for jobs, he struggles vainly to get Alvin's life sentence reduced. He provides what funds he can, lends his credit card so that the family can rent cars for funerals. He spends days sitting at wakes and hospital bedsides. When Collis dies and is buried in the wrong plot, he tips the gravediggers to move him.
There is much, much more. "Rings" is a book of quixotic fidelity. It has a quixotic wackiness, as well, but, as in the book the adjective comes from, it is wackiness in the service of revelation. It does as much as it possibly can and acknowledges its limits. At the wake for Farris, whom Randy has felt particularly close to, he looks away from the body. "In life," he writes, "this is what I'd done--looked at him and his family." This is true but it is not the whole truth, and in the shortfall lies the book's astonishing achievement. It fails magnificently in suggesting a solution for the story of Collis and his family; it leaves us with an open wound. We will not die from it nor even, probably, amend our lives.