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.")
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."
Love, in other words, means never ducking the next big foe. Frankie lands Maggie a fight with Billy "The Blue Bear" Astrakhov, a "masculine-looking" Russian girl who has become the sport's biggest draw. Thus, the trainer who hated watching women punch each other now puts his own adored fighter against a rival notorious for dirty tricks and glaring fouls. It's the classic sports film set-up--good versus evil--and evil wins. Maggie ends up "a permanent, vent-dependent quadriplegic unable to breathe without a respirator." And Frankie helps destroy what he helped create. In this film, as in Unforgiven, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The late trainer Bill Slayton once said that boxing "has some of the most rotten people you'll ever meet." It's not a fact Toole chooses to stress, even though, like many romantics and melancholics, he seems to have been readily disappointed by life's bitter realities. One of Toole's aging trainers describes himself as living in a world "that cared less and less about the things he cared about more and more," like loyalty, honesty, God. In Rope Burns, the world of boxing is grimy but not without its moments of kindness and hope, affording solace and the chance of redemption to at least some who enter its odd fraternity. Toole himself believed that boxing had saved his life.
But of course, Toole also knew that, for most professional boxers, the fight game finally offers nothing more than a "one-way ticket to Palookaville." As such, Toole's stories--unlike, say, the boxing essays of George Plimpton or A.J. Liebling--are without moments of true levity. They belong to the darker stream of boxing literature, where the readers find such novels as Budd Schulberg's The Harder They Fall and Leonard Gardner's Fat City, which Joyce Carol Oates aptly calls "a handbook of sorts in failure, in which boxing functions as the natural activity of men totally unequipped to comprehend life."
"Million $$$ Baby" was partly inspired by one of boxing's more recent catastrophes, a one-sided match in 1996 that left a Missouri woman mauled and permanently disabled. Ironically, the first death in women's boxing occurred during an amateur match in Colorado last April, just weeks after Million Dollar Baby won its four Academy Awards.
This event prompted two neurologists to challenge the new popularity of "lady fighters," as they used to be known. Writing in the New York Times, Julian Bailes and Vincent Miele suggested that women boxers are more vulnerable to head injuries, not only because of their general lack of adequate preparation, but because their "smaller neck musculature" makes them less able to absorb hard blows to the head. And yet, thanks to Toole's story and Eastwood's film, interest in women's boxing continues to spread internationally. The sport's advocates argue, not unreasonably, that more women fighters will inevitably lead to better-trained women fighters more deft in the art of defense. And they are pushing hard to add women's boxing to the 2008 Olympic Games.
What Toole would make of this is hard to say. As Jerry Boyd, he worked with several women fighters, and like Frankie Dunn, urged them to excel without compromise. But as F.X. Toole, he also chose, as his epigraph to Rope Burns, these words of Joyce Carol Oates: "Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost."
Brian Murray teaches in the Writing Department at Loyola College in Maryland.