Friday, January 15, 2010

Book review: One Ring Circus

One Ring Circus: Dispatches from the World of Boxing, Katherine Dunn ***

Katherine Dunn's anthology of boxing articles, One Ring Circus, is a bit of a mixed bag. Having spent many years writing mostly for local alternative papers in the Pacific Northwest, her focus has naturally been somewhat local. This has its good points and bad points.

On the one hand, Dunn writes vividly and insightfully about boxing at its most basic level, in the gym, the locker room, and the corner, and about lower-echelon boxers, both up-and-comers and never-will-bes. Her portrait of a pair of inexperienced, bewildered seconds frantically yet ineptly trying to deal with their fighter's cuts is devastating. Her pieces on the nature of boxing gyms, on the contrast between the brutality of the sport and the multi-generational gentle atmosphere found in most of them, for example, or the random way in which newcomers get assigned to good or bad coaches, create a great sense of place. I've been a boxing fan all my life, but this was perhaps the first book to make me feel like I really know what the inside of a gym is like.

Maybe because Dunn's gender helps create a rapport with them, her pieces on women boxers are also excellent. She's able to elicit fascinating insights like this one from her piece on Lucia Rijker (who played the boxer that paralyzed Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby):

You know what I notice? How guys have a tendency to reach to touch your face or your head, like to cuddle? Right away my head jerks away, ducks, whup, whup. And they say what's up with you? And I say I can't help it, it's a reflex. When something comes towards my face, I move away.

While Dunn does write about famous boxers and fights -- Leonard-Hagler, Hagler-Hearns, Alexis Arguello, Roberto Duran, a contrarian defense of Mike Tyson, and others -- that's not her strong suit. She's at her best when writing about journeymen boxers and their lives, but ironically this strength is a weakness when her work is anthologized. Because so many of the pieces are old (from the '80s and '90s) their stories just aren't as interesting as they probably once were. It's hard to care about obscure boxers who were fighting 15 or 20 years ago. Updates provided at the back of the book make up for this somewhat, but only somewhat.

Overall, I think serious boxing fans will enjoy the book, especially its insights into the boxing life at its lower levels, but more casual fans and general readers will probably find most of it less than fascinating.

**** Highly recommended
*** Recommended
** Meh
* Don't bother

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