The Last Word

His death in 2002 did not completely silence the unique voice of Million Dollar Baby author F.X. Toole
August 13, 2006

POUND FORPOUND
by F.X. Toole
Ecco, 366 pages; $25.95

Even the luckiestboxer risks getting his brains scrambled, while his unlucky brethren can makeJob seem like a preliminary boy. And yet this savage enterprise, gnawed to thebone by flesh peddlers, has always been a haven for dreamers, for fighters andcorner men who endure the ugliness to give us courage, grace, humanity. F.X.Toole was a member of that noble tribe, closing cuts for the wounded for thelast 20 years of his life. But he was a writer too--oh, was he a writer--and heopened his arms widest to boxing's dreamers.

Two of them arethe lifeblood of his posthumously published novel, Pound for Pound, and if itseems that Toole stacked the obstacles before them impossibly high, it may bebecause he cared for them at such a gut level. Dan Cooley is a timeworn LosAngeles trainer with a bad eye, a worse heart and a family decimated by diseaseand tragedy. The only kin he can reach out and touch is an 11-year-old grandsonwith a gift for fighting. Then an accident snatches the boy's life away too,sending Dan into a tailspin that veers from homicidal to suicidal.

His salvation issomeone he'll be a long time in meeting, a teenage welterweight named ChickyGarza, who is taking his own lumps as he tries to fight his way out of SanAntonio. His grandfather, an ex-boxer deep in the clutches of morphine,entrusts Chicky to a pair of rat-bastard brothers who scam Chicky out of hisshot at the U.S. Olympic trials. So the young fighter heads for L.A., where hisfirst professional manager is an even lower form of vermin who steers him intothree quick mismatch losses. Small wonder that Chicky becomes a savior whoneeds saving himself.

There's aDickensian touch to all this, but there's also a sense of the immense pressureToole labored under. He wrote Pound for Pound not knowing if he could finish itbefore he died. Of course, the fight guy who was born Jerry Boyd had pulled offthe impossible before, publishing his first short story under the pen nameToole when he was 69. A year later his story collection, Rope Burns, arrived totake its place among the greatest boxing fiction ever. But in 2002, Toole wentto his grave at 72, too soon to see Clint Eastwood turn two of his stories intothe Oscar-winning movie Million Dollar Baby. And Pound for Pound remained a900-page manuscript that begged for more work.

Toole's literaryagent and a freelance editor stepped in and "shaped" it, to borrow averb from crime novelist James Ellroy's introduction. The drastically shortenedresult, alas, doesn't belong on the same shelf with Leonard Gardner's Fat Cityand W.C. Heinz's The Professional, the gold standard of boxing novels. There isnone of the precision or surprise that made Toole's short stories a revelation.Instead, Pound for Pound is burdened with a predictable plot and some shakylogic. And when Dan and Chicky finally do meet, only 84 pages remain, spaceenough to do no more than tie things up with an inelegant bow.

Such haste can beblamed on the forces that snatched Toole away too soon. Those same forces,however, couldn't prevent him from creating characters worthy of rememberinglong after their story is forgotten. They inhabit a world no writer everunderstood better, and speak a language as real as a boxer's bruises. As anold-timer who saw Dan fight says, "He did it so pretty you wished you hadthe same daddy." Both Dan and Chicky are riding life's roller coaster,Chicky worrying that failure is his destiny, Dan trying to outlast an uncertainheart. They are prime candidates for surrender, just as the man who createdthem was. But there is no quit in them, nor was there in Toole. To the end, hewrote with a fighter's heart.

 

THROWING BULLETS
By Roy Rowan
Taylor Trade Publishing, 208 pages, $22.95

Francisco Liriano and Justin Olson began the 2005baseball season as teammates on the Double A New Britain (Conn.) Rock Cats inthe Minnesota Twins' farm system, two well-regarded pitching prospects withgrand hopes of making it to the Show. Over the course of the summer, asdecorated journalist Roy Rowan (a former LIFE assistant managing editor)chronicles in Throwing Bullets, their fortunes diverge. While Olson labors as amiddle reliever with the Rock Cats, Liriano--now a Rookie of the Year candidatewith the Twins--blossoms into one of the game's top young pitchers. Rowan,accompanied by his wife, Helen, shuttled from one sleepy town to another to bethere for the triumphs and travails of both pitchers. At its heart, ThrowingBullets is the story of Rowan, a baseball enthusiast but press-box outsider,immersing himself in the game. He quickly finds that his biggest challenge isto get to know the shy and elusive Liriano. Eventually the author develops aheartfelt connection to minor league baseball and to both young men as theirfragile careers head in different directions.

--Albert Chin

 

TWO PHOTOS PHOTOKEN HIVELY/LOS ANGELES TIMES CORNEROFFICE
Before he became F.X. Toole, Jerry Boyd was a cut man for 20years.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)