on 6 November 2000
'Rope Burns' is the latest addition to a very select group of books: those written by authors who marry literary skills to an insider's knowledge of an otherwise secret world. In Toole's case, this is the world of boxing, a subject of perennial interest to many who would never dream of setting foot inside a ring.
The six stories, linked by theme, resonate together to produce a composite portrait of a style of masculinity and a way of life which seem by turns epic and profane, legendary and banal, pitiable and enviably pure. Along the way, and almost incidentally, we are given a caustic vision of the underbelly of American life, from which boxing sometimes permits an escape, however temporary. In the end perhaps the deepest theme of the book is the unreality of the false communities of ethnicity, nationality and religion by comparison with the authentic community of individual men who love and trust each other because they have met in an arena that demands that they know each other without disguise or excuse.
The author's influences as a writer lie frankly in the romantic or mythic realism whose modern source in literary fiction is Hemingway, and, like Hemingway, Toole's most obvious weakness is that he can be sentimental about the object of his passion. However that passion, as elaborated in the author's introduction to the collection, is real, and the occasional lapse into sentiment is the price we as readers pay for access to the passion.
This is not to minimise Toole's skills as a writer, still less to suggest that this is a disguised or defective work of non-fiction. Toole's ear for dialogue, his command of narrative tension, and his ability to create characters who engage the reader immediately, are outstanding, and his expertise never reads like the undigested product of research. Instead it serves to substantiate Toole's belief that the boxer is an archetypal figure who, almost uniquely in our society, has the chance to gather within himself all that is best and most difficult in masculinity. The author's detailed knowledge is not merely a knowledge of pugilistic techniques and jargon: he convinces us that we know boxers as men, as human beings: what drives them on, how they think and feel, how roughly reality can handle their dreams.
It is a real pleasure, in addition, to encounter stories that are not disfigured by the reflex irony, which in so much contemporary writing has to do duty for the writer's hollow heart. For better or worse, Toole never stands apart from his subject. Ancient virtues are still virtues: 'Rope Burns' is an old-fashioned pleasure, but it's a pleasure nonetheless.