December 12, 2019

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Southern brawler's gritty story sizzles

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/5/2018 (586 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Fighter, though aggressively focused and controlled, manages to be many things in its slim 240-plus pages. For one, it is a devastatingly efficient novel that coils and releases its mammoth punches in blinding succession — the literary equivalent of a first-round knockout. It’s over before you’re ready to let it go, but it remains viscerally satisfying in its brutality and brevity.

At the same time, among the explosive jags of violence and the ensuing devastation, author Michael Farris Smith has the will and the ability to go bedrock-deep with the lives he’s depicting, to peel back the scars and the scabs to explore why and how these characters got here — as well as how and why these characters are mirrors of the reader’s own (almost assuredly scaled-down) struggles.

You do, however, have to keep up. We are introduced to protagonist Jack Boucher in a four-page prologue that takes him rapidly from his abandonment at birth through 12 years of aimless foster care in Clarksdale, Miss. It is his arrival at the home of foster mother Maryann that caps this section, providing a brief glimpse of peace in a tumultuous young life.

We pick up with Jack again after the prologue and almost 40 brutal years have passed. He has been a cage fighter for the majority of his adulthood, and we see the results of a life spent in menial, unregulated combat. Indebted, addicted and desperate, Jack is living out of a truck and awash in several different strains of fog. His body and spirit are crushed, and most horrifically, his memory and his concentration are addled to the point that he keeps scattered notebooks of basic facts — an exterior variant of Guy Pearce’s tattoos in the 2000 film Memento.

He is gripped by two goals: to take an envelope of money back to Clarksdale to pay off his personal debts to a loan shark, as well as to save the equally ailing and addled Maryann’s home from foreclosure. But circumstance combines with Jack’s deficiencies to send this very simple plan reeling in multiple directions — one of which leads to a return to the cage and a final, brutal fight.

Smith’s drastic economy — of language, of stated information and of time passage — belies the richness of what he presents with his blunt tools. A native Mississippian, Smith’s eye and ear for his Southern setting and the characters that populate it are impeccably communicated with very few brushstrokes. And the story itself, as simple and as tightly wound as it is, has layers unseen behind its electrifying pace.

The Fighter makes almost no effort to swerve away from cliché — at its core, it’s almost literally the story of a punch-drunk ex-fighter who has to get in the ring one last time to save the orphanage. Though Smith is obviously steeped in the esteemed literary works of fellow Southerners such as William Faulkner and Carson McCullers, he’s likely provided just as much space in his palette of influences to noir film and prestige TV.

At the same time, as a story of a legacy of loss, of two people the world has passed by — shorn not only of connection, value and agency, but of their very memories — the novel reaches far beyond its already deeply satisfying patina of pulp to become something transcendent. For such a punishing, desolate story to leave the reader in an almost uplifted place is an accomplishment and an enormous credit to Smith’s skill.

Doug McLean is a Winnipeg musician and writer.

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