Let's get this out of the way right of the bat: To say Million Dollar Baby: Stories From The Corner is a book about boxing is akin to saying Moby Dick is a book about fishing. It touches on the truth but misses the point entirely.
Sure, all the "stories from the corner" involve boxing. And they feature people involved in fighting. And yes, they take place in seedy gyms and boxing arenas. OK, OK, I admit, they really are about boxing. But there's so much more to them than that. If you saw the Million Dollar Baby movie, you'll get what I'm talking about.
Boxing is the springboard for these stories because they were written by a man who was immersed in the boxing culture for decades. Jerry Boyd (aka F.X. Toole) was a fighter himself before moving on to "cut man," someone whose job is to stanch the flow of blood from wounds inflicted during a fight. He knew the fight game inside and out.
But if that's all there was to him, these stories wouldn't be as wonderful as they are. Like Ernest Hemingway, Boyd followed that most essential rule: Write what you know. Hemingway wrote about bullfighting and hunting and chasing girls, but that's hardly what made his stories resonate with millions of readers over three generations. Likewise, Boyd writes about boxing but only as a means of delving into the hearts and souls of some unforgettable characters.
On the surface, the six short stories are interchangeable. Each features fighters, trainers and cut men. Each takes place in the gym and in the ring. But once you dig in, you'll see each has its own unique flavour. Sometimes it's sweet, sometimes it's bitter, but it's always hearty.
In The Monkey Look, a cut man takes what he's owed from a fast-talking deadbeat fighter in a classic revenge tale. Black Jew looks at money's role in the fight game, how it's used and misused, and how it's often more a symbol of honour than currency.
Willie "Scrap Iron" Dupree (played by Morgan Freeman in the movie, which actually fused elements from three stories) is the narrator of Frozen Water. Scrap Iron tells us the story of a young fighter who bullies a mentally challenged man and, in turn, is taught a lesson in the true spirit of boxing by a more seasoned pugilist. And Fightin In Philly introduces us to a cut man whose unplumbed depths come to the fore when he sees works by Michaelangelo.
The two powerhouses in the collection are Million Dollar Baby, obviously, and Rope Burns. MDB is about an aging trainer who all but adopts a fierce but gentle woman boxer as the two climb to the top level of the sport. Rope Burns, which was the original title when the book was first released in 2000, may be the most touching and compelling of the lot. In it, Boyd weaves a complex tale of love, friendship and loyalty, and how the spectre of racism and violence threatens them all.
Stephen King, in his book On Writing, says great writers are born, not made, and I believe that. Boyd is a great writer. His punchy (sorry, couldn't resist) prose appears natural and effortless and his dialogue is the best I've read, period. Even Harper Lee couldn't beat Boyd's mastery of the evocative southern black speech patterns: "Hymn... hit Shawrelle with a left hook yip! to the liver that made him gut sick and spread yellow all through him and he know what be next on the way. Shawrelle new trainer with his mouth all open go for ice water in a bottle he dump on Sharelle."
Emotion is never overt in these stories and yet they are steeped in it. Honour, love, hate, fear, joy - they're all here in these scant 230 pages. To distill so much story into so few pages is beyond many so-called "literary" writers - heck, even the undeniably great Jonathan Franzen needed almost 700 pages for The Corrections. Boyd serves up gourmet meals, presented on tiny plates, rather than the all-you-can-eat buffet of other authors. And I savoured every bite.
Just a footnote: Jerry Boyd's stories were rejected by publishers for 40 years before he finally sold The Monkey Look to a small literary magazine. Luckily for us, he managed to collect this handful of stories before he died in 2002. Tragically for us, we will never again hear from this wonderful author who, in the words of Terry Malloy, coulda been a contender.