Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Bruiser by Jim Tully

I'm not a great fan of boxing but I do like boxing books.  And this is one of the best I've read, right up there with W.C. Heinz's THE PROFESSIONAL.

This book is not only about boxing but about the desperate heart of a man trying to carve out a life for himself in the Depression-racked '30s.  Here you'll find great scenes of the life of the Depression-era hobo, as well as the sweat-and-leather smells of the time's low-rent boxing dives.  At its heart, THE BRUISER is a book about survival against nearly overwhelming odds, something that Jim Tully knew just a little bit about, having been a hobo at a very young age himself...after leaving an orphanage.

What I love best about this book is the style it's written in.  Tully sentences here, as in his best books, are like strong right jabs.  Voice and image is everything to me--to me, an otherwise good book written in a flat style is a bad book--and Tully excels at both.  People call him hardboiled, and I've never really understood what they mean by that.  True, he writes short, sinewy sentences about tough men and tough women in tough times, but the writing is also packed with emotion and poetry.  It even borders on sentimentality, which is another thing I like about it.  Jim Tully is just a damn good novelist, and I don't think trying to shove him into the "hardboiled" notch does him justice.

Here's the opening that sets the tone and mood of the tale:

It was raining fiercely.  The clouds roared with thunder.  Water fell in long silver slivers.  There was no escape from the driving water.  Under the projecting roof of the section house, Shane Rory stood and gazed at the water splashing on the rails.  His clothes were wet and wind-whipped.

He was about eighteen, and had not reached full growth.  In spite of the rain, his hair still curled at the edge of his cap.  A large blue scarf was tied about his neck.  His coat collar was turned up.  His hands were deep in his pockets.  His jaws were set, his forehead wrinkled as he tried to penetrate through the rain-splashed air.

Engines shrieked about the railroad yards, their headlights burnishing the falling water.

Tully has long been overlooked, but I think it's time readers revisit this terrific writer's wonderful, colorful contribution to the literature of the first half of the last century.  That's easy to do now that Black Squirrel Books of Kent, Ohio is reissuing almost all of his work in very handsome trade paperbacks.

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