As writers go, F.X. Toole was not one of your precocious, dewy-eyed Iowa Writers' Workshop debutants. He attended the M.F.A. program of hard knocks. If his author's bio is to be believed, he was a taxi driver, saloon keeper, bullfighter (really?) and, most notably and relevantly, a boxing trainer and cut man. Toole (a pseudonym) was also the author of the story collection Rope Burns, best known for the short story Million Dollar Baby, which became a movie of the same name. Rope Burns was Toole's literary debut. He was 70.
Toole never saw Hilary Swank get that second Oscar. He died in 2002 of what he would have called a bum ticker, leaving behind the manuscript of a novel called Pound for Pound (Ecco; 366 pages). Under the circumstances, it's a pleasure to say that Pound for Pound is not a rough, unfinished, posthumous collection of jottings, nor was Rope Burns a fluke. Pound for Pound is that most rare and absorbing of pleasures, a great boxing novel.
To paraphrase Yoda: Always there are two--a trainer and a fighter. In Pound for Pound, the former is Dan Cooley, a once great, now pathetic and drunk trainer to whom life has delivered one sucker punch too many (no, that will not be the last boxing cliché in this review). The fighter is Chicky Garza, a good-hearted, hard-hitting Tex-Mex punk, 62-9 with 33 KOs and a whole lot of old-fashioned bad luck. Dan and Chicky need each other. Connect the dots.
This makes Pound for Pound sound predictable and sentimental, and it's definitely not predictable. You'll draw a standing eight count (see?) after the plot twist on page 45. You'll learn why boxers grow out the nails on their thumbs and forefingers (it helps getting the tape off) and how amateur gloves differ from pro and why exactly fancy footwork matters and what vodka tastes like hot from the trunk of a car.
And sentimental? Only in the best, most heart-tugging sense. Pound for Pound demonstrates that you can win in the ring--oh, does Toole have a way with that bruising fight-night action--but still lose in the parking lot outside, and that whatever the numbers say, nobody retires undefeated. Or as Chicky puts it, "When you can't even win when you win, then you ain't never gonna win."