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Muscular Style

James Carlos Blake tackles the life of a boxer in this fine work of historical fiction

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Fiction-writer and journalist Jack London makes an appearance late in James Carlos Blake's deftly crafted new novel about boxer Stanley Ketchel.

It's 1910. Ketchel and London are both in Reno to see the former heavyweight champion James Jeffries ("The Great White Hope") challenge African-American champ Jack Johnson, but London wants to talk about the match Ketchel had with Johnson nine months earlier. Though overmatched, Ketchel actually had the upper hand for a fleeting moment.

Over a beer, London tells Ketchel that re-reading the accounts of that fight is "like reading classical tragedy for the umpteenth time. I mean, you already know how the story's going to end, but you can't help getting caught up in it anyhow. ... You can't help rooting for the doomed."

Reading The Killings of Stanley Ketchel, you already know the story's not going to end well. But you can't help rooting for the doomed anyhow.

Blake, Mexican-born, Florida- and Texas-raised, and currently an Arizonan, has made a career of fictionalizing historical "men's men." The Friends of Pancho Villa set guys in the Mexican Revolution; Under the Skin, in Prohibition-era Galveston; in Handsome Harry, with the Dillinger Gang. His characters typically punch, gouge, knee, shoot, smoke, drink and hump with impunity ... and without much preamble or reflection. The Killings of Stanley Ketchel has all of the above and more, but it's also left room for a little stylistic and thematic nuance.

Stanislaus Keicel, born in Michigan in 1886 to Julia and Thomas Keicel, is nothing if not pugnacious. Expelled from school for fighting, he's not yet 16 when he defends himself from Thomas with a pitchfork and hops a freight train west. After months of traveling (described with an almost romantic poignancy), doing odd jobs and living in hobo camps, he lands in Butte, Montana. Liking Butte's rough, last-of-the-Old-West energy, he takes a job as a bouncer.

In Butte, Keicel decides to try to make a vocation of his natural avocation, and he begins to box. Changing his name to Stanley Ketchel, he's immediately successful with his farmboy/rails-rider strength and quickness. But when his trainer pushes him to train with discipline--to box, not just fight--he becomes a contender for national middleweight champion. Then the 5-foot-9, 160-pounder sets his sights on the heavyweight championship.

To pick up London's thread, that ambition--along with his eye for the ladies--could conceivably constitute a tragic flaw.

No one's going to accuse James Carlos Blake's writing of over-indulgence in relationship or character--although they're both developed, at a sort of knowing, cigar-at-the-light, distance. This book is action-driven, and clearly the real Stanislaus Keicel experienced enough to provide some memorable material. Ketchel's "bo" period, for example, stacks one story on another: young Stanislaus being yanked into a box car--legs flapping--by one-eyed "Iron George" and stick-carrying "Steamer"; Ketchel on a chain gang, pulling two rattlesnakes off a buddy who'd fallen into a nest of them; Ketchel snapping the arm of a guy who'd pulled a knife on a 13-year-old, and throwing him off a speeding train.

Blake re-creates Ketchel's matches in jaw-shattering, rib-battering, head-snapping detail. He paces the narrative adroitly, giving a glancing recap to one match, and drawing out the suspense of a 10-count to a painful two pages in another.

My interest flagged with the sheer number of fights, but I am not a boxing fan. Regardless, the personal story kicks in and revives it.

Blake's Ketchel is multi-faceted. A violent guy who loves his mother and brother, he has a taste for Chopin, but attacks to kill without missing a beat. He trysts with prostitutes but clings to a romantic ideal. He dissipates his talent, then disciplines it. He wastes friendships, then values them; and he casts beyond his ability.

Race plays a part in Ketchel's story, but Blake handles it subtly. The heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson, is black. The boxing fan base is white, as are the other fighters, and--including Ketchel--generally racist. Blake's Johnson emerges as another sympathetic character--powerful, grandstanding and genially malapropish, but admirable.

Blake, who's himself admitted to resorting to fisticuffs, seems be playing here with the notion of the power of language. Guys in the novel who are quick with their fists are quick with their words. Jack London writes about Ketchel's fists that they "impart poetic truth more/Potently than any pen." Ketchel's manager would become a writer ("that enduring profession of skilled liars"). Blake dedicates his book to the nuns who taught him the language.

In The Killings of Stanley Ketchel, James Carlos Blake is finally bringing his considerable potential for literary prose to genre fiction, and it's suitably delivered in his characteristically muscular style.

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