"Write about what you know" is the advice creative writing teachers used to give first-time writers. One wishes someone had given it a little earlier to Francis Xavier Toole, who died in 2002 at age 72 after just one book. What Toole knew best was a world peopled by, in the words of fictional boxing trainer Earl Jeter ("But all my friends call me Jeet"), "White and black folks, Spanish of all kinds, Chinamen and Arabs. Mens and womens ... Nice people. Old Irish dudes with red noses ..."
Published in 2000 under the title "Rope Burns" -- what you get from spending too much time leaning against the ropes in a boxing ring -- Toole's book has been republished and renamed for its best story, the one that provided the basis for Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby." There aren't many people left who can testify to the authenticity of Toole's stories. For better or worse (and judging from the fate of most of Toole's characters, it's hard not to say better), the world of professional boxing is rapidly disappearing in this country. Toole, a former boxer, trainer and corner man -- the latter is someone close enough to the boxer to jump into the ring between rounds with a bucket, a sponge and encouragement -- wrote what amounts to a series of elegies for people like Adolph Dashiki Jones, Cuba Kid Babaloo, Henry "Puddin'" Pye, Fightin' Maggie Fitzgerald, Con Flutey, Frankie Dunn and Joseph Mary "Mac" McGee.
Toole knew the language of the fight game: "Members of a faction always said my and we: we fought; we're gonna fight; we won; we got beat; my kid. They say we because they fight when their fighter fights, and when their fighter get hit, they get hit." And: "He miss with six big ones, then throw four more, only thing he hit be air. He try to move in and go to his right, but Reggie step outside his front foot and make him move to the left instead."
His corner men dispensed life lessons to their fighters: "Boxing is an unnatural act instead of runnin' from pain, which is the natural thing in life, in boxing you step to it, get me?" They also perform practical services. "My job," says an ace "cut man," "is to stop blood so the fighter can see enough to keep on fighting ... I do that, maybe I save a boy's title. I do that one little thing, and I'm worth every cent he pays me ... the boy loves me more than he loves his daddy."
Most of all, Toole knew the fighters. "Shake hands with a fighter someday," he wrote. "You'll see how soft his hands are from being steamed in gauze and leather and sweat, how small his hands are compared with other athletes the same size, and how his handshake is as gentle as a nun's." Toole shook a lot of fighters' hands in his 70-odd years; he also taped and gloved them, and got hit by them. "I love boxing," he tells us in his introduction, "almost as much as I love the sacraments." And Toole was a devout Catholic.
Some of his characters are so devout they curse the deity with a fervor reserved for disillusioned Irish Catholics, such as the trainer who pleads with the patron saint of lost causes to "intercede for me, Jude Thaddeus, though I hate God." For Toole, God was in the details -- in the gyms, auditoriums and hotels where the fighters and trainers spend their lives. Toole bobbed and weaved in and out of their heads, sometimes speaking about them, sometimes letting them speak for themselves and in their own dialects. He had a talent for illuminating the thoughts of the literate but streetwise in sharp, jablike prose that came at you with the rhythm of a good gym fighter working on the speed bag. There's a trainer looking for a champ who's been "disappointed more times than an old priest," and a young phenom with moves so sweet that "watching him fight was like watching chess with pain."
Another fighter, a journeyman, is "brought to Atlantic City to be the opponent. Opponent in the fight game means the one supposed to lose." Opponents have to eat in places where "steam coming up and grease all over. Hot dogs and dried-out fish and chicken fired near to black. Cold pork chops all bone and fat. Food be dead." Toole gave us the staccato-like action of a fight through the eyes of men who saw it from the corners: "Reggie keep on putting a hurt on the boy. I yelled to Reggie to relax and have fun ... Boy never been in this deep water. Big, strong boy, and he tough, he gain weight, like Reggie, but he tired from all that missing. He taking so many punches he think he be fighting a drag queen with a purse."
The best of Toole's stories are about men and women who manage to somehow scratch out a draw in a world that always seem to have height, reach and a 20-pound advantage over them. "Fightin' in Philly" is an account of how desire to excel in the ring drains a man for life outside it. "Most thought the game was corrupt because of the money. Con saw it otherwise, that there was money because of the corruption." In "Million Dollar Baby," a wildly improbable and utterly fascinating story of the rise and fall of a female boxer, Toole's powers were at their peak. He balanced cool narrative with wild Irish sentimentalism in a fable told with gritty realism. From men and women whose lives are usually mined for melodrama, Toole found tragedy and heroism.
Hemingway, who saw writing as fighting, believed that by the end of his life he had become smart and tricky enough to hold Stendhal to a draw. Toole knew from the inside what Hemingway saw from the folding chairs, and when it came to the boxing story, earned a split decision over him. It was a hell of a debut for a kid who had just turned pro.