Only nine pages are spent in 1965, but those nine pages are the lens through which the rest of the story is viewed. Except for a five-page snapshot scene from 1977 in which Frank shows his sons a photograph of himself from his fighting days, the bulk of the book is set in 1986 and centers on the younger son, Nicky.
Nicky is sixteen years old and loves to play basketball. Frank decides that his son needs to take boxing lessons because he wants his son to build character and one day drags Nicky off of the basketball court to the gym to start training. Upon entering the gym, Nicky sees one of the fighters in a ring sneering at him. The boxer has a tattoo of a dagger with the handle above the eye and the blade below the eye. Ink blood drips from the point of the blade and the boxer's entire body radiates hate and anger.
Nicky proves to be a good shadow-boxer, skilled on the speed bag and well coordinated at jumping rope. When he gets into the ring he just doesn't like to be hit and winces at punches. Nicky is a sensitive boy who is trying to overcome the loss of his older brother Buddy who committed suicide. Nicky has the usual sensations of teenage detachment which are heightened by his father's rise to power and fame in the ranks of the Greenwich Village mafia.
Instead of the usual morass of teenage angst, Kriegel adeptly provides a collage of the forces that shape Nicky's life. We learn that the girl Nicky falls in love with is from the upper east side and sings in a punk band; we follow the reporter who publicizes Frank's murder of the Mafia don back to his grimy room in the Chelsea Hotel; we learn the history behind Nicky's trainer, Toodie, whose teacher was Paddy Blood, Frank's trainer. Although Nicky is clearly the center of the story, Kriegel deftly colors in the world around Nickymaking the picture natural and complete.
Kriegel treats the ring as a kind of higher reality, a place where worldly facades, attitudes, and disguises are stripped away and a true immutable representation of the person strides from the corner to exchange blows with his foe. In the beginning of the book we see Frank come out and throw his "big punch," the punch that will put down the other guy, the punch that does nothing, and he goes down in one round. The book ends with his son battling with the tattooed tough from the gym, the image of savagery and anger that has been lurking in the back of Toodie's gym leering at Nicky since he came in the first day of training. Nicky's father sits in the audience with a version of the same tattoo, a scar from a razor slash that Frank receives in a jail stay. This fight at the end of the book between Frank's savage doppleganger and his own son is the second lens of the book, from which you can see the whole story as Frank's fight against his own son. Both of the lenses are really the same. Frank can never see anything except in terms of himself, his attempt to build his son's character with boxing lessons is a vain attempt to reconstruct his own shortcomings. Frank's battle against his son and his battle against himself become the same; Frank can only see his son as an extension of himself.
When reading this book I could not help but note the echoes of Pete Dexter's novel, BROTHERLY LOVE, Pete Dexter's story about two brothers from the Irish mob has much of the same grit and street smart characters that makes the reader think that if a movie is made of either book that it could only be shot in black and white; color film would distort the sharp edges and smudge the pitch black shadows. Dexter too, uses boxing as a probe that allows the examination of the true character of people, one brother enjoying the ring and devoted to practice while the other goofs off and does not even dress for workouts. Dexter uses the sport as a way to further explain and flesh out the characters in his novel. Kriegel defines his characters through their relationship to boxing: either the image portrayed in the ring or relationship to the boxers as seen in the priestlike roles of the trainers.
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