The Magazine

Lord of the Ring

Rediscovering the author of "Million Dollar Baby."

Oct 17, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 05 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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In Toole's stories, seasoned cutmen--men very much like Toole himself--go to war with gear bags filled with the tools of their trade: sponges, swabs, ice bags, cocoa butter, adrenaline, even Murray's pomade, used to make the skin slick and plug up cheekbone wounds. And Toole's trainers treat their fighters like their own children, with firmness but endless care.

"These kids," Toole wrote, "put their lives in your hands."

In the volume's title story, "Rope Burns," a Toole-like trainer, Mac McGee, schools Henry "Puddin" Pye, who is a young black contender and a trainer's dream. When Puddin is murdered by a thug whose brain is "toasted" by crack cocaine, Mac--an ex-cop who still packs a handgun--takes his revenge in a scene that could have been scripted by Quentin Tarantino: Blood sprays as the Glocks and Magnums blast away.

Toole's boxing scenes ring very true; after 20 years in the corner, this writer knows what fighters do before, during, and after they enter the ring. But Toole can be cartoonish, too, particularly when one of his personae, like Mac or Frankie Dunn, gets tough with his fists or a gun. Toole, we're reminded, really did teach himself to write far from the literary mainstream, and the result--part poetry, part pulp--has a crude but honest charm. It might recall Hemingway, but there's a fair bit of O. Henry in this soup, and more than a dash of Mickey Spillane.

"Million $$$ Baby" begins by recalling the sort of old boxing movies in which James Cagney battles for his sweetheart, or William Holden puts down his violin to fight for the crown. Here, once again, is the raw but earnest contender and the gruff trainer with the heart of gold. Here is their dogged pursuit of a long-shot dream.

It's not surprising that Toole's story appealed to Eastwood, a smart director drawn not only to traditional genres, but to ironic stories about misguided men stumbling into the murk of their own moral doom. In Mystic River (2003), Jimmy Markum, played by Sean Penn, mourning the death of his daughter, makes a dreadful mistake when he turns his need for justice into an act of revenge against an innocent man.

Unforgiven (1992), Eastwood's best film, is also linked thematically to Million Dollar Baby. Here, William Munny is an ex-gunslinger who, out of respect for his dead wife, has packed up his guns and turned to pig farming instead. But his resolve breaks when he joins a posse hired to avenge the assault of a prostitute in a nearby town. Munny plans to use his share of the reward money to assist his children, a dicey move for a man of such uncertain virtue. Unforgiven unfolds with relentless, tragic certainty, ending in a flood of blood and, it appears, Munny's complete moral demise.

Dunn similarly descends. At first, he refuses to train Maggie Fitzgerald, citing his own pugilistic code. He doesn't train girls because watching them get busted up "went against everything he believed in." Besides, there are too many complications, such as "scheduling fights around periods. And bruised tits. And what if one was pregnant and had a miscarriage because of a fight?" Frankie wants to keep his conscience clean.

When Frankie was a kid, boxing meant the likes of Joe Louis, Tony Zale, and James Braddock, the hero of Ron Howard's earnest but cliché-ridden Cinderella Man. In public, at least, fighters like these exemplified what so many have found alluring about "the sweet science of bruising." Sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney once wrote that "boxing's final validity . . . is as a context for courage and nobility of spirit. Most boxers are well worth knowing. They are like men who have been to war. Maybe we should not have prize fights, but those who have been involved in either have an extra dimension of experience. They have been to a frontier that most of us can only know vicariously."

But women's boxing, Frankie knows, tends to pander to the sport's tawdry side. Women fighters come from a small talent pool; they're mostly ill-trained and often mismatched. Lacking force, they throw windmills, like kids in a schoolyard--much to the merriment of fans who, all things considered, would be just as content watching a pair of combatants in thongs slipping half-nelsons in a tub full of mud. Women's bouts are "more like dog fights," Frankie asserts, "freak shows."

Maggie is one of the exceptions--a serious, spirited mix of goodness and guts. Maggie respects Frankie, treating him like the father she loved and lost. For Frankie, Maggie is the devoted daughter (and sure-thing contender) he's never had. Frankie wants Maggie to be "the first Million Dollar Baby, wanted her to be somebody before she hung up her gloves, so she'd always be somebody afterward."