Books Read in 2015 – 49. The Fight by Norman Mailer


Genre: Boxing, 

Narrative Style: Third person – Norman features as a character in his own reporting.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1975Unknown

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Norman Mailer is one of many journalists invited to Kinshasa to see the Rumble in  the Jungle between Mohammad Ali and George Foreman. He documents the many characters on both sides and in the process takes sports’ writing to a new level. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2015 – Genre: sport

I’m  not entirely sure how I came to be in possession of this book but as I had been wanting to read some Norman Mailler for a while, it came into my head straightaway for this challenge. And while I don’t really watch boxing, there is no doubt that it has produced some of sports’ biggest personalities, Muhammad Ali being a case in point.

In a lot of ways, this is a psychological study, not only of Ali and Foreman but of Mailer himself. Throughout the text, Mailer refers to himself in the third person as if he is just another character in this narrative. He tries to unpick his own magical thinking and attempts to ensure that Ali will be the winner and his racial attitudes come under scrutiny as well.

The run up to the fight is described first along with the training methods of two very different men and all the attendant hangers on that they both inspired. Neither Foreman or Ali seemed particularly likeable in a straight forward sense. But then that is scarcely the point. It was whoever was braver, stronger, more arrogant that was going to win this contest and these are the traits that they both showcase.

If you didn’t know the outcome, you might not expect the winner to be Ali. This is one reason that “Norman” is so worried early in the text. Ali is curiously disinterested in the beginning while Foreman shows no fear whatsoever. In fact, I found myself questioning my knowledge of the outcome. Had I really got it right? That was until the fight itself started.

I’m not the biggest fan of boxing but Mailer’s praise made it seem a noble pursuit, almost as delicate as a dance rather than a brutal fight. Certainly, he takes sports’ journalism to a new level, to where it is poetic rather than merely descriptive. It was a joy to read the in depth account of each round. I felt like cheering when Ali eventually won whilst also feeling a great deal of sympathy for Foreman who at first seemed under the impression that he had won.

I don’t read a lot of sports’ writing but based on this, I would certainly read more of Mailer’s work.

Books Read in 2014 – 56. Barracuda – Christos Tsiolkas

Genre: Australian Fiction, Sport, GLBTbarracuda

Narrative Style: First person moving back through events, third person moving forward through events. 

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2013

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Danny Kelly has one desire – to win olympic gold. His whole life is focused around swimming, racing and training. When he loses for the first time, he feels the world come crashing down on his head. He almost doesn’t recover. 

At the beginning of the novel, the grown up, present day Danny Kelly is clearly in a bad place in his life. He is out of place – both literally and metaphorically – and unclear where his life is going. You know something has gone badly wrong for him. This is reinforced in the third person sections of the text which describe Danny starting a fee-paying school on a swimming scholarship and his many racing successes. The reader is immediately drawn in. What on earth could have gone wrong?

Clues are slowly revealed such as the fact that Danny has been in prison. The first person narrative moves back in time and presents such a startling contrast to the third person that at times it is hard to believe that this is the same Danny Kelly. The two narratives converge on the same moments in time in roughly the middle of the novel. It was nerve-wracking reading up to this point as it becomes more and more apparent what is going to happen. I wished so hard to be able to stop the inevitable but Danny could not be stopped from hitting the very bottom.

After this, the pace changes, the first person narrative is now the one that is filled with the joy of swimming as it relives Danny’s early years and the third person narrative shows Danny slowly becoming a new person after his spell in prison. There is still a contrast between the two narratives but it is less jarring than in the first half of the book and I began to hope that Danny would find some sort of contentment.

One of the reviews that I read of this book suggested that it was ridiculous that Danny would fall apart after just one race but I think that actually Tsiolkas describes his downfall well. It is all tied up with the fact that Danny is working class in an essentially middle/upper class environment. When he fails, it is only the inevitable catching up with him. Even his father seemed to believe that failure was just there waiting for him. There is no sense in trying again as he there would only be more of the inevitable. Tsiolkas offers a strong commentary on class and the meaning of success in this novel. I particularly enjoyed his critique of the Sydney Olympics which was close to how I felt in 2012.

Danny is gay but this is just an accepted fact and causes him no problems. The problem for Danny is his class not his sexuality. It was very pleasing to read a novel where sexuality was just taken as a given, not as an issue in and of itself. Definitely one of my reads of the year.