Friday, November 27, 2009

The Professional

Frank Hughes is a war vet and old friend of Doc Carroll. He's doing a magazine piece on Eddie Brown, a 29-year-old welterweight whom Doc has been managing for nine years.

He was Doc's fighter. It is what a painter does in his paintings so that you would know them, even without his signature, and what the writer does in his writings, if he is enough of a writer, so you know that no one in the whole world but he could have been the writer.

Eddie's not just a better boxer than the current champ, he's a decent hard-working guy. He's not a showboat. He's as mild-mannered as his training camp diet -- stewed prunes, dry toast, soft-boiled eggs. Everybody likes him, and now he's got a shot at the title.

The month-long training camp and the fight itself are seen through Frank's eyes. We meet an assortment of colourful characters:

Johnny Jay - Doc's pail man
Memphis Kid - Eddie's sparring partner
Barnum, Polo and Charlie Keener - managers
Penna, Schaeffer, Cardone and Booker Boyd - fighters

Only a few of them truly understand the sport of boxing, which is "just too intricate for the average person, fight fan or not, to comprehend." To Frank and Doc, the same seems true for just just about everything else in the world. "Dreadful" is Doc's favourite word.

Frank and Doc live in hotels and do a lot of drinking and telling of stories -- about the war, about boxing and baseball. Like the time Doc opened his door and an enforcer named Razor Pete took a swipe at him with a knife. Doc drops him with a couple of punches, then politely lifts him to his feet and assists him to the elevator. He and Frank visit Razor Pete's boss, a gangster who wants a piece of Doc's fighter. The gangster compliments Frank's writing, Doc returns Pete's broken knife, and they have a friendly drink together and talk baseball.

Years later Frank bumps into Razor Pete, who is in poor health by then. He's asthmatic and has a bad heart. He offers profuse thanks for a glass of water.

It's a manly world where politeness is not a sign of weakness.


Papa's influence is obvious from page one. The author, W.C. Heinz, met him during WW2, and when The Professional came out in 1958, Hemingway immediately cabled him from Cuba, saying: "This is the only good novel I've ever read about a fighter."

This edition includes a foreword by Elmore Leonard, who became acquainted with Heinz after he too wrote a congratulatory letter. Leonard mentions his own debt to Hemingway, and remarks that Heinz was "the all-important link, the next step" in his own development as a writer. The two met later when Heinz came out to Detroit to interview Gordie Howe, who lived a few blocks away from Leonard.

Heinz passed away just last year. He's been inducted in the Boxing Hall of Fame, and his "Death of a Racehorse" is considered one of the best sports pieces ever written. His collaboration with a physician resulted in the novel MASH, which appeared under the pseudonym Richard Hooker.