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Sparring with Joyce Carol Oates
By Robert Ecksel

Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost art of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost. (Joyce Carol Oates)

When fight fans hear that the best boxing book since Norman Mailer's "The Fight" (l975) was written by a woman, they either sneer, make remarks or funny faces. A woman! A woman writing about boxing? What do women know? Especially about boxing? As in so much else, it turns out, more than one might think. Through the years there were Warrior-Goddesses ready and waiting to knock some guy's block off. Those Archers of the Gods, the Amazons of Myth; La Pucelle, Virgin of the Battlefield and future Saint Joan of Arc; Annie Oakley, Bonnie Parker, even Amy Fisher; these were women possessed by an inexplicable fighting spirit.

Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing. (Joyce Carol Oates)

Lots of gals in gloves and tights can knockout most of us Joe Six-Packs. Yet when it comes to considering the sport, dissecting the primordial pleasure we call the Sweet Science of Bruising, a woman, especially one as exceptional as Joyce Carol Oates, can help us find light in boxing's sinister beauty.

Like so many of us, Joyce Carol Oates came upon boxing by accident. Her father loved the fight game and left copies of The Ring magazine lying around the house. In the l950s he took his impressionable young daughter to her first match - a Golden Gloves bout in Buffalo - and before she knew it, the future novelist Joyce Carol Oates was hooked on boxing. Even as a child, Oates was an astute and wary observer of the rites of man. And, naturally, she was both repelled and attracted to this dangerous activity, this beauty and this violence, that related only to itself.

I have no difficulty justifying boxing as a sport because I have never thought of it as a sport. There is nothing fundamentally playful about it; nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure. (Joyce Carol Oates)

Joyce Carol Oates is one of America's finest writers. Given her background, her interests, her brutal honesty, her psyche, her writing, while in the end redemptive, does drag readers through the thorny underbrush of reality at its most unforgiving. Her novels are usually brilliant, but are not to everyone's taste. Joyce Carol Oates "On Boxing" rubs even more people the wrong way.

If boxing is a sport it is the most tragic of all sports because more than any other human activity it consumes the very excellence it displays . . .
(Joyce Carol Oates)

Why does Ms. Oates' book cause so many men who read it consternation? Is it because she's a woman? Because she's an intellectual? Or is it some combination of anger, rage, greed and envy? We've been so dumbed-down over the years that some of us don't know which way is up. But Ms. Oates, given the chance, will hand us a roadmap. There are many fine, interesting, conventionally-structured works on boxing in bookstores worth reading. Yet all of them are by men. But if one yearns for the flipside, another take on the final chapter, on the last bastion of male propriety, then look no further than "On Boxing" by Joyce Carol Oates.

Each boxing match is a story - a unique and highly condensed drama without words . . . Because a boxing match is a story without words, this doesn't mean that it has no text or language, that it is somehow "brute," "primitive," "inarticulate," only that the text is improvised in action . . . Ringside announcers give to the wordless spectacle a narrative unity, yet boxing as performance is more clearly akin to dance or music than narrative. (Joyce Carol Oates)

Granted, Joyce Carol Oates is deep, thoughtful, not locked in a single thought, belief system or perspective. She's one serious lady, one serious person, one serious artist, whose written a serious book about a very serious sport. The words she writes may come from her mind, but boxing is the ghost in the machine.

The boxing match is the very image, the more terrifying for being so stylized, of mankind's collective aggression; its ongoing historical madness. (Joyce Carol Oates)

Oates has also written several handsome pieces on the Rise and Fall of Mike Tyson. Her "Mike Tyson" (1986) revisits the Iron Man on the cusp of his crowning glory. (Mike Tyson, a boy warrior, has become legendary, in a sense, before there is a legend to define him.) "Blood, Neon, and Failure in the Desert" (1987) recalls Tyson's unification of the heavyweight title. (Winning too can be a kind of failure.) "Tyson/Biggs: Postscript" (1987) recalls the merciless beating Mike put on Tyrell Biggs. (Boxing's spectacle is degrading, no doubt - in the most primary sense of the word: a de-grading of the self; a breaking down, as if one's sensitive nerve-endings were being worn away.) "Rape and the Boxing Ring" (1992) connects the dots between boxing, violence, Tyson, Indianapolis and Desiree Washington. (Who is to blame for this most recent of sports disgraces in America? The culture that flings young athletes like Tyson up out of obscurity, makes millionaires of them and watches them self-destruct?) Oates' "Fury and Fine Lines" (1997) was inspired by Tyson's indecent assault on Evander Holyfield. (Boxing is the appropriate sport for Nietzsche's terrifying aphorism: "What someone is begins to be revealed when his talent abates, when he stops showing us what he can do.") Each of these pieces - in fact, everything Joyce Carol Oates puts to paper - is controversy thought through, each a superb treatise on a superb subject by an avatar of the written word.

Which returns us to the paradox of boxing: its obsessive appeal for many who find in it not only a spectacle involving spectacular feats of physical skill but an emotional experience impossible to convey in words; an art form . . . with no natural analogue in the arts. Of course it is primitive, too, as birth, death, and erotic love might be said to be primitive, and forces our reluctant acknowledgement that the most profound experiences of our lives are physical events - though we believe ourselves to be, and surely are, essentially spiritual beings. (Joyce Carol Oates)

Robert Ecksel

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