Throughout the history of boxing, the sport’s appeal has been its undoing: A contest between equally matched opponents will always attract bettors, and betting begets corruption. With the rise of the National Football League, boxing has waned in popularity. Thanks to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which recently celebrated its 20th year of promoting mixed martial arts events, boxing is not even the most popular combat sport.
While the sport may be in serious decline, the boxing novel is alive and well, thanks to Michael J. Seidlinger’s audacious new book, “The Laughter of Strangers.”
“Sugar” Willem Floures is at the end of a long and storied career. Though he lacks a signature move, his ability to take a punch and outlast his opponents has always served him well. His strategy is simple: “Land as close to the temple or as snugly under the chin and rock that brain, send them to the canvas, watch them dance their way to defeat.”
Lately, Sugar has been taking more blows than he’s been delivering, and his memory has been giving him trouble. When he loses a bout to “Executioner” and drops to No. 2 in the rankings, the pugilist starts to unravel.
The story is set in an unnamed city in the near future, where boxers are obligated to make media appearances weeks before and after the match. Media demands are so intense that Sugar barely has time to train. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Gilded Age when boxers would square off in an illegal bout and then tour the country together, staging endless exhibitions in entertainment-starved towns. Sugar can’t get away from his adversary — or himself.
Although his increasingly frequent blackouts make dealing with the media a nightmare, his manager, Spencer Mullen — think Burgess Meredith with a laptop — keeps booking more appearances to forestall his inevitable decline. Even though the press is bad, Sugar manages to stay in the limelight because “negativity floats.”
But “The Laughter of Strangers” isn’t your ordinary boxing novel. Its first-person, stream-of-consciousness delivery brings immediacy to the fight scenes and a hallucinatory quality to Sugar’s freakouts that call the legitimacy of his claims into question. Interspersed throughout the novel is a voice that the reader can “see” and only Sugar can hear. Sometimes it’s his manager. Sometimes it’s his opponent. Sometimes it’s an alternate version of himself, preying on his worst fears.
“EVERYTHING YOU SAY, I HEAR. EVERYTHING I HEAR, YOU DREAD”: Like a ringside announcer who knows the outcome of the fight before it commences, the voice taunts Sugar’s wandering mind and erratic attention.
Seidlinger avoids the clinch of genre fiction that tells us boxing novels should be brooding and atmospheric tales. “The Laughter of Strangers” delivers a combination of psychological horror and strangeness that would not be out of place in a David Lynch film. Seidlinger’s weird new fight fiction suggests that perhaps the best place for boxing contests isn’t in the ring but between the pages of a book.
Ruland is the author of the short-story collection “Big Lonesome” and the host of the reading series Vermin on the Mount.
The Laughter of Strangers
Michael J. Seidlinger
Lazy Fascist Press: 268 pp., $12.95 paper