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Literary Notes: “Grimmish” (Book Review by Thomas Hauser)

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  • Literary Notes: “Grimmish” (Book Review by Thomas Hauser)

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    By Thomas Hauser

    Grimmish by Michael Winkler (Westbourne Books) is strange book. And an intriguing one. The book focuses on a one-year period in 1908-1909 when boxer Joe Grim toured Australia engaging in fights. Winkler describes his writing as "experimental non-fiction." Experimental fiction with a factual underpinning would be more accurate.

    Grim (ne Severio Giannone) was born in Italy in 1881. His family came to the United States when he was ten. Fighting was in his nature. He was famed in his day for the ability to endure punishment and being virtually impossible to knock out. credits Grim with 179 known bouts between 1899 and 1913 resulting in 17 wins, 33 losses, 6 draws, and scores of "newspaper" defeats. He entered the prize ring well over three hundred times and was battered by myriad opponents whose names have been lost to history and also by Bob Fitzsimmons, Joe Gans (twice), and Jack Johnson. During and after his ring career, he was committed to facilities for the treatment of mental health issues. He died in Philadelphia Hospital for Mental Diseases in 1939 at age 57.

    Winkler views Grim through the eyes of a first-person narrator and a man who may or may not be the narrator's much older uncle. The book opens with a pseudo-review by the author himself that functions as a preface, foreword, introduction - call it what you will.

    In this opening, Winkler warns readers of "the question of authenticity and the impossibility that this presentation of Grim will bear much or any connection to the flesh-and-blood fighter Joe Grim. The inclusion of extracts from contemporary newspaper accounts," he adds, "lends context, although less tenacious readers may find they impede progress. There is no narrative arc, close to zero love interest, skittish occasional action, incident rather than plot."

    All true. And I might add that there are passages in Grimmish involving a talking goat where I had no idea what Winkler was trying to accomplish.

    That said; through a collection of fragments and vignettes, Winkler crafts a compelling impressionistic portrait of Grim.

    "Joe Grim," he writes, "reminds us of where the bounds of the normal are drawn, and stands conspicuously and spectacularly outside that compass. Without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction."

    Other thoughts advanced by Winkler include:

    * "Grim’s philosophy in its entirety – or more than a philosophy, which implies a distance between self and thought however small; his tao, his raison d’etre, his self – was simply this: I can take more punishment than they can deliver."

    * "Grim withstood hundreds of blows every fight. He was a one-off, the ultimate boxing outlier. But his metier was resilience rather than resistance. He absorbed and accepted. His contests changed in a profound sense, becoming not about winning or losing, but hinging on whether or not he could endure the punishment meted out. And on that score he invariably triumphed. Grim became a spectacle rather than a fighter, but he was popular and he made a living."

    * "There was always a third person in the ring, but the role of the referee was neutered by Grim’s resilience. The crowd had paid, quite explicitly, to come and see if Grim could endure the beating, and no referee had the imprimatur to stop that fun."

    * "Try picturing a baseball bat swung with great force into your exposed ribs, under the armpit. Try to conceive of a well-aimed mallet landing erratically just above your left ear, and you with no means to stop it. Imagine these things are happening to you in front of a crowd baying like starved dogs. Imagine a single vicious punch to your face, and then multiply it by many hundred, and then think of the cheering that each punch drags from thousands of jeering onlookers. Then we have some gesture towards understanding Grim."

    Winkler also recreates Grim's voice:

    * "I think of myself as a travelling artiste. The crowds love me, and then they speak of me once I’ve gone, and that adds value to my days on the planet, somehow."

    * "In that boxing time, I am outside of time. Six rounds, three minutes each, and in that span I belong to that span only. There is no connection to clock time, to earth time. And that is how I live, with and for those ripped out portions where time has no dominion. Six three-minute rounds, five one-minute breaks, twenty-three minutes that are as long as you need them to be, or they can be devoid of time altogether."

    * "I stand in front of the hardest hitting men on the planet, and then the promoter still tries to f*** me sideways on fight payments as I make my way home. It is a pitiful racket and I have been in it too long, and I have no other path ahead, and that is that is that."

    * "I worry that I am outside the scope of nature. I am not just at the edge of my species, but over the margin. I do not belong. I worry that one day my fighting might end, and that without the pain I will have no map to find myself."

    Pain - "the rich realm of pain," Winkler calls it - is a recurring theme throughout Grimmish. At the beginning of the narrative, he concedes, "The sustained depiction of physical violence is likely to alienate some, while others may weary of the defiant wallowing in the sludge of masculinity. [But] there is likely to be a readership, however small, that finds within these covers something sincere and worthwhile."

    This pain isn't confined to the prize ring. There are tales in Grimmish of men mutilating each other with hot poker irons in tests of will and the ability to endure pain. Other fragments include:

    * " What is the thing we call pain? It is something that captures the attention of the sufferer but otherwise has no meaning. It makes no sound, has no colour or smell, occupies no physical space. And yet at its most extreme, pain becomes the only thing of which the sufferer is aware, bigger for the victim in that instant than any object in the universe."

    * "Some might think that the glory of pain is that it teaches you things. And I say as one who might know, if there is enough of it then pain is just pain. A lot of pain is a lot of pain, and it is not a friend and not a teacher and not a guide and not a redemption. It is just pain."

    * "My audience wants to travel with me on a pain journey, so I give them as much as they need. And for the rest, I block blows, I absorb the force of punches through my neck and spine, I stall and distract, I allow myself to be knocked down in order to intensify the spectacle and to wear some extra seconds off the clock. It is a show, and my body is the stage and the instrument, and that is why they pay, and that is how I get to eat well and put money in my name into the bank."

    And some parting thoughts from Grimmish:

    * "Interesting what humans will pay for, what we actually like. When James Corbett went to England, they wanted to entertain him and their idea was to take him to a rat pit and have a champion bulldog kill a thousand rats in a thousand seconds."

    * "Anybody can learn to box. But to fight, it is different."

    * "There’s a trick to life. I think you’ll find it, even if you have to wait until you’re very old. Just keep looking. You’ll probably get there in the end."

    If you're intrigued and want more, read Grimmish.

    Thomas Hauser's email address is His most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing's highest honor - induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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