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If the frisson of Bert Sugar's "long cigars and long nights" exemplifies anything at all, it is the radically imaginative style of life with the fight game, that cooled-out synthesis of blood and myth, a moment of epic struggle and a place of men. Whether F.X. Toole's first book, Rope Burns, is an escape from that blood remains an issue for literary theorists. But for the rest of us, there is no question that he transmutes his Stories From the Corner into mythic parables for the sweet science.

This remarkable collection of five short stories and a novella arrives at a crisis point in the history of boxing. Marginalized by more glamorous but less sophisticated sports and endlessly assailed by feminist absurdities, boxing now struggles, too, against its own inner complexities to emerge once again as a force in the American consciousness. Toole's wise, ironic narratives document the lives of underdog newcomers, double-dealing promoter fiends, naive romantics and old-style trainers. His experience for 20 years as a cut man illuminates every detail of these hard lives and clearly demonstrates why serious boxing fans are forever transfixed by the image of a fighter angling for his next bout, faking to the left of ruination and summoning from his own fear the spectacle of heroic splendor. Yet, his boxers command an emotional reality that fuses Toole's fighter-gothic aesthetic to the cruel facts of the game itself. Consider this extraordinary monologue spoken by an aging former fighter:

"I wasn't a contender, nothing like that, but I was a scrapper and I put on a good show every time I lace them up in the local arenas around L.A. -- Wrigley Field, Ocean Park, Wilmington, Jeffries' Barn, and sometimes up in Stockton or Frisco, and down Tijuana Old Mexico ... These days, the old gyms be gone, like Main Street and Hope Street, but now I'm out at Hymns Gym 108th and Broadway, run by boy I used to train, Curtis "Hymn" Odom. Call him Hymn he fight so pretty and always serious as a shroud, Curtis Odom. Curtis a contender in his prime. He hit so hard you start lookin' for a tittie to suck. But he got a eye detach and can't see right and that be it, but good God how the boy could punch ... "

Here is Toole in his best mode, exploring the interior longing of fighters who dare to contemplate the big room, the main event, and shimmer in stylized glory only to find themselves imprisoned finally by melancholy and memory and the vanishing landscape of their one true devotion.

This fine book would be worth the cost for its introduction alone, a deeply felt, personal essay titled, "A Member of the Fancy," in which Toole reflects on his time in the ring and in the corner and always in "the life." His prose is, by turns lyrical and lurid, now elegant, now brutal. But he takes us always straight to the center of the game. The ropes do burn, bubba, and this book, because it is the real deal, has scars enough to tell the tale.

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