Lord of the Ring
Rediscovering the author of "Million Dollar Baby."
Oct 17, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 05 • By BRIAN MURRAY
F. X. TOOLE made excellent copy. He was, for starters, a study in persistence--an ambitious fiction writer who plugged away for more than 40 years without notching a single publication. In the meantime, he also compiled a rather varied curriculum vitae: actor, bullfighter, cabdriver, bartender. Toole was 49 when he took up boxing, but when cracked teeth and heart surgery finally made him stop, he became a trainer and licensed cut man who, for nearly two decades, worked with aspiring fighters in the gyms of Los Angeles.
Toole was 70 when his first book, Rope Burns, a collection of boxing stories, appeared to enthusiastic reviews. For decades, Toole couldn't give his stuff away, and then suddenly he was hot property, the subject of feature stories and interviews. Pete Hamill compared him to Hemingway.
Toole--whose real name was Jerry Boyd--died in 2002, and Rope Burns, like nearly all story collections, wound up on remainder tables alongside books about card tricks and yoga. But interest in Toole revived when Clint Eastwood used two stories from Rope Burns as the basis for this year's Oscar-winning film Million Dollar Baby, now available on video and DVD.
Back in 2000 I invited Toole to give a reading at Loyola College in Baltimore. A practicing Roman Catholic, Toole told me over the phone that he was honored to appear at a Jesuit school. But he seemed apprehensive, too. After all, as Jerry Boyd, he was a familiar figure on the California fight scene. But as F.X. Toole he was still something of an upstart--a self-taught storyteller who gave few public readings, and apparently found the prospect of a university audience somewhat daunting. Somebody, perhaps, might suckerpunch him with a question about Derridean theory, or the proper use of the past perfect tense.
At the airport I found a tall, broad-shouldered man carrying a gym bag and a copy of Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad. With his thick glasses and trimmed white beard, Toole might have passed for an eminent academic; but something about the faded windbreaker and high-topped sports shoes gave him away. He demanded immediately: When was he going to get paid? A blunt request, perhaps, but not a surprising one from a man who'd spent 20 years in the fight game.
Driving Toole through Baltimore I pointed to some of the popular sights: the Inner Harbor, Lexington Market, and the National Shrine of St. Jude--the only place really to catch his eye. The next day Toole returned to the shrine, for the apostle and patron saint of desperate causes had, he admitted, "saved my ass" many times. In his foreword to Rope Burns--now back in print as Million Dollar Baby--Toole notes that he was long "into the sauce" and on close terms with more than a few deadly sins.
Toole's public reading proved memorable, for it wasn't much of a reading at all. He spoke of his long struggle to get published, and like a good commencement speaker, urged the students in the audience always to persevere. He invoked some of his own intellectual heroes and, like a guy who probably had lectured too often from atop a bar stool, launched into a discourse spiked (as I recall) with not-wholly-fused allusions to Miguel de Unamuno and Thomas Hobbes.
Finally, the hour nearly gone, Toole turned to "Million $$$ Baby," the basis for Eastwood's film. Toole went straight to the part in which a badly battered fighter, Maggie Fitzgerald, begs her trainer, Frankie Dunn, for help in ending her life. As he read, very effectively, Toole's voice broke. He was, he once admitted, "a sentimental Irish romantic at heart."
Toole came to boxing through his father, who "took heart" from the careers of such great Irish fighters as Jim Corbett, John L. Sullivan, Gene Tunney, and Billy Conn. Toole would recall how, as a boy, he listened to the fights on the radio, and felt drawn to the "magic . . . [of] men in combat, the magic of will, and skill, and pain. And risking everything so you can respect yourself later in life." Late in his own life, Toole called boxing "a game where old men can still go to war."
Toole relished his role with young fighters, most of them Latin or African American. The fight world, of course, has long been marked by the generally easy association of black, white, and brown: It was multicultural before multicultural was cool. (It's not, however, politically correct; hence, the perennial pursuit of a "great white hope" to prompt other whites, great or not, to come streaming to the gate. And veteran trainers are still likely to ponder and weigh the presumed ethnic quirks of fighters who come under their sway. Thus, Lou Duva, recalling his success with certain Latin fighters, once theorized that "Mexicans are more or less related to me as an Italian.")