This novel is both a boxing novel and a novel about multicultural America in the 21st century. What distinguishes it from other boxing novels is its many women characters, which the author has drawn sympathetically. It is a novel about a world in which different races seem to operate without as much friction as in other social realms.
The novel is organized into 12 rounds, and consists of three different sections of early, middle, and late rounds. The action, descriptions, and outcomes are all quite spare, and it culminates in a championship fight for Parnell “Kid” Coole, the lightweight fighter.
Parnell Coole is a quiet, even inarticulate person. Outside of boxing, he is not a particularly violent person, although he lives in a violent world. In the opening beats of the novel, he saves a young woman from being raped. The scene is graphic and upsetting. And yet it is clear that he is the good guy, saving the young girl from her rapist.
This, in turn, leads him to meet the young woman’s mother, with whom he becomes good friends.
The novel is set in the Hudson Valley of upper New York State, an area well-known for its boxing programs. The fighter Mike Tyson came out of this world in Catskill, New York, close to where the fictional towns of Sticks and Leathe are located.
Stephens has crafted an honest look at the world that Kid inhabits, without being sentimental or sensationalist. He has created fully realized characterizations of the people in Kid’s world, including him, without resorting to stereotypes. This is the third novel by M. G. Stephens in a series about the Coole family, and the Rail is proudly running Kid Coole as a serial over the next twelve issues.
“Much did I rage when young,
Being by the world oppressed”
—W. B. Yeats
THE EARLY ROUNDS
“The mongoose then moves in for the kill,
seizes the cobra under the throat and
crushes its skull.”
He grabbed another towel and a change of clothes, plus blue and yellow running shoes, and went out of his tiny room and down the hall, entering the communal bathroom. He liked to take a shower at this hour because it was quiet and the shower stall had been cleaned by the night porter. The shower hadn’t become dirty with the other tenants using it yet. He sang.
—Don’t cry for me, Argentina.—
His voice was terrible, high-shrill nasal—thin and raspy.
He looked at his big, black knuckles and wondered if his hand was all right. Never punch anything without wrapping your hands, asshole. Never should get in fights outside the ring. Dumb fuck. You’re gonna pay for this, man. You are going to do one-hundred-and-fifty extra sit-ups at the gym. You are going to do fifty more push-ups today. Never (never-never) do that again, man. Walking away from a fight is an action. Walking away is an action. Walking. That’s an action.
He toweled off, dressed, and walked back to his room.
Kerry was gone. She left a note on his bed.
—I owe you. Thanks a million. You’re a sweet guy.—
He sat on the bed, eating a banana and drinking from a container of orange juice that he took from the small refrigerator in the corner. There was a hot plate on the dresser, but he did not feel like tea or coffee. He ate a day-old roll and a small container of plain, low-fat yogurt. He took a handful of vitamins, washing them down with a bottle of cold water. Kid looked out the window and, even though it was the center of Sticks, he saw deer foraging in the backyard.
After a few moments, he fell asleep on the unmade bed.
—Help me, help me, help! Fuckn help me, man!—
He was in the alley doing his warm-down, walking it off when he heard a voice. Her voice was young and scared.
Kid inched forward.
He heard her struggling against a great force.
Then he came upon them, the young girl and this big ugly guy with a bald head and a shamrock tattooed on his neck. Shamrock wore a long black leather coat, his pants off, he had the young girl pinned underneath him and spread over the hood of his Lexus sports utility vehicle.
Her jeans were on the ground, a few feet away from her, and her underpants were several feet beyond the jeans.
Shamrock must have heard Kid because he turned around.
—What the fuck, Mr. Shamrock said, turning.
As the man turned, Kid hit him squarely on the jawbone, rendering the big man momentarily senseless, but not enough to knock him out. The man spun off the girl and reeled in Kid’s direction. He produced a boxcutter knife in his right hand and swept it in a big arc toward the Kid who ducked under the sweep of the man’s arm. The other guy was nearly a foot taller than the tiny boxer, so Parnell Coole (the Kid) went under the return sweep of the boxcutter and hit the man hard on the left side of his stomach. When the boxcutter came sweeping around again, leaving the right side vulnerable, the Kid punched the guy hard on his liver.
The big man’s knees buckled, and the Kid hit him on the temple. Then he threw a slashing punch across the man’s eyes, opening a cut on the brow. Blood shot out of the big man’s eyebrows like something in a bad movie, a red jet gushing everywhere. Momentarily blinded, he forgot to swipe the boxcutter and Kid smashed a straight right into the man’s nose, shattering it across his face.
Bonebreak had a sound all its own. Break-pain soon followed, and the big man let out a horrible-wounded animal call.
Boxcutter on ground, the man fell to his knees, clutching his face in pain. If the Kid were really vicious, he’d kick the man to the ground, then stomp on him. But Kid had never cared much for such actions outside the ring.
The girl got to her feet groggily, pulling her underwear and jeans on. She found her muddy white downcoat on the ground. Kid grabbed her hand, trotting with her down the alley.
They zigzagged through streets and alleys until they got to his rooming house on the other side of Sticks, off the courthouse square and the center of town. They walked down a driveway to the back of the great white clapboard building, and entered a side door with his key, going up a flight of stairs to the back part of the house and the room that the landlord rented to him. Kid’s room was small and dingy, but the girl seemed relieved to be off the street.
Once inside his room, she cried.
Sticks was a mile long, going east to west, sloping down to the river. When he ran eastward, it was all uphill, but easier when he came down another alley for the westward journey toward the river. His roadwork was full of peaks and valleys until the very end of his run since he went back and forth in Sticks anywhere from four to ten times. So he ran, all alone, no people anywhere. But—
A big Rottie charged him, growling and ferocious.
Kid pulled the jumprope from around his waist, and snapped the dog on its nose with the tip of the doubled-up strand of leather rope. Usually they backed off after being snapped. But this big ugly dog retreated, then wanted to come back for more. So Kid flicked the rope onto the nose of the dog, almost the way he would flick his jab at an opponent—the way a lion trainer might snap the whip at her animals.
The dog whimpered and ran off.
Kid kept running.
—Saint Vito, Saint Vito, Saint Vito, Saint Vito, he prayed to the patron saint who protected people from animals.
After the Rotweiler, there were no more dogs to stalk him, no more pit bulls, and ghostly mutts, only skunks and possums, a stray coyote poking through garbage, even a wandering deer in the center of town, not an uncommon sight after a long winter and no food for the animals to forage.
Near State Street (that great street!), the most northern of the big streets in Sticks, he saw the last remnants of the street trade from the night before. This early in the morning a pimp and a few prostitutes, maybe even a john or two, lingered on.
A coyote ambled away at the sight of him.
Kid shadowboxed, moving sideways in his black cross-trainers.
He skipped sideways like a giant crab. His navy blue nylon workout suit rippled to the steps.
He liked the towel, something he stole from a hotel in Syracuse when he fought there a few weeks ago. He wrapped it around his neck like a pashmina scarf.
The fight in Syracuse had gone three rounds when Billy Farts told Kid:
—Put the motherfucker away—
He had that momentary problem with finding his corner. But then he made it back in time for rest and instruction, water and for them to treat his cuts and the swelling around his right eye.
Kid was six and one, all wins by knockout. The loss was a lie. A mistake. Some guy named Blue Rivers from Schenectady or Troy. It didn’t matter one good shit where fuckn Blue Rivers came from. Kid would knock him out the next time they fought. He would not leave the decision to a bunch of bozo judges.
People were talking about him. Newspapers even had back-page articles, if not the New York City papers, then the upstate ones.
—Kid Coole Looks Good, one said.
—Coole Is Someone to Watch—
—His amateur record was spotty, but he seems more suited to the professional ranks, a natural lightweight who has no trouble making weight every fight—
—A throwback to the days when fighters fought and boxers boxed—
...six and one...
Even if the opponents were tomato cans, they all had been good fighters in their day, and they put up a good fight before being knocked out. This was how it was still done, taking a young fighter like Kid and giving him some confidence fighting professional matches no better than old-time smokers in places like Troy and Utica and Rome, building up a winning record until he was ready to go south to the Garden or Atlantic City or maybe westward into Vegas.
Even Kid knew that he was ten to fifteen fights away from a good match up—from a title shot.
So he did his early morning workout, punching and running. Then
He handed her the terrycloth towel. She blew her nose in it.
—He was going to kill me.—
—I met him in a shooting gallery on State.—
—No, she said, crying again.
—Stay here, Kid said.
Kid’s head was shaved, and he wore a nylon gym suit, with black high-top cross-trainers, a wool watchman’s cap pulled down over his ears, and big insulated mittens on his hands. There was a white terrycloth towel wrapped around his neck like a scarf. It looked as if he’d been running, only it was his morning roadwork. Running and throwing punches, doing footwork. That was long and hard work, and when he finished, he went back to sleep for a few more hours before going to his day job. Kid kept his hands high up and moving, throwing punches at imaginary opponents. He bobbed and weaved, talked to himself, then moved away sideways in his black cross-trainers, never crossing the feet. Billy Farts taught him that a long time ago. You never cross your feet in the ring. Kid ran for a few blocks through the alleys. He stopped, unleashed a five-punch combination. Moved on. Moved on up. Moved out and away…
The Kid walks around the ring for fifteen seconds, bouncing from one neutral corner to another. Then he steps over to his opponent’s corner.
—Get the fuck outta here! their cutman screams.
—Over here! Billy calls. Jesus, Kid, what gives?
By the time the Kid sits on the wooden stool there is only forty seconds left between rounds.
—What don’t you see? Billy Faherty shouts at the Kid.
—The corner, the fighter tells him.
—Corner? Billy Farts says.
Thirty seconds remain.
Mike White, the cutman, works frantically on the opened eyebrow.
—Jesus! Billy Faherty calls out over the crowd noise.
(Boxing is a game of seconds—every second being its own eternity.)
—Jesus, Kid, what the fuck you want, an invitation on a silver platter?—
—Couldn’t fuckn find you guys, the Kid shouts back.
He’s wasting everyone’s time now. Arguing in your corner: That’s about as stupid as a fighter can get.
Blood’s in one eye.
The Kid had been thumbed in the other eye even though they wore thumbless gloves.
His vision is blurry in the thumbed eye. He can’t see anything from the bloody one.
—You’re gonna lose this fight if you don’t fuckn knock him out, Billy screams.
Mike White, the cutman and Billy’s partner, washes the mouthpiece in the bucket of water, and then he hands it to Billy, Kid’s trainer, who puts the mouthpiece back into his fighter’s mouth.
—Quit pussyfootin’ and knock this motherfucker out, Billy Farts says.
So the Kid goes out and does what he has to do and he gets the KO.
(One-Minute in the Corner)
I didn/t come out jabbn, didn/t listen to my corner (Jesus, Billy and then Mike warnin/ me to keep movn), and I didn/t use the angles—okay, I was artless (Billy Farts/s word, always Billy Farts/s words) and open for the knockout, treatn it like a walk in the woods—and I forgot the last warnin/ from the referee to “protect yourself at all times,” but instead I waltzt out to the middle of the ring as if it were a picnic, I never thought of it as a fight or even as blood sport, and instead wanted to give my opponent flowers and talk about how/s your family, how/s your corner, man?
ContributorM. G. Stephens
M. G. STEPHENS is the author of nineteen books, most recently Occam’s Razor (2015), a collection of short poems. His other works include the novels The Brooklyn Book of the Dead and Season at Coole; the essay collections Green Dreams and The Dramaturgy of Style; and the memoirs Lost in Seoul and Where the Sky Ends. He recently completed a nonfiction work about downtown New York in the 1960s, with particular attention on the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. Recent writings have appeared in the current issues of Missouri Review, Notre Dame Review, The London Magazine, and The Hollins Critic.