ack in September, Eric Beetner
and Terrence McCauley
took part in a panel I moderated at Bouchercon 2013
, and talk turned to novellas they had written for the Fight Card
line, a series of boxing stories by new pulp and hard-boiled authors under the house name Jack Tunney.
What is the appeal to younger authors in the 21st century, I asked them, of writing stories set in the 1930's, '40s, and '50s, using a byline fashioned from the names of two athletes of the 1920s, about a sport that has not loomed large on the American scene since the 1970s?
Beetner dismissed the widespread belief that boxing is no longer popular, citing the rise of mixed martial arts (MMA). And lo, it was one of Fight Card's two MMA novellas that not only opened my eyes to the nuances of a sport that took shape only in 1993
, but also demonstrated in its purest form the appeal of those old-style boxing stories.
The novella in question is Welcome to the Octagon
, and the author is Gerard Brennan
, a longtime friend of Detectives Beyond Borders and an author with a growing list of credits for the stage and the page. That he sets Welcome to the Octagon
in contemporary Belfast only emphasizes his fidelity to the old-time conventions of pulp boxing stories: the good guy, the gangster, the girl, the temptation, the tug of war between old and young.
The story has wry, self-deprecating humor:
"My heart wasn’t in it, but I had to live up to my nickname. The Rage! That was a joke. There and then I felt like The Disappointment. But I roared at the crowd and they roared back."
It has sharp social observation that reminds the reader he or she is no longer in New York or Los Angeles or a tumble-down precinct of some other American city:
"The Troubles had gone away. Except for the new age scum that was rising to the top. Maybe TapouT didn’t typify the real gangsters pulling the strings in Northern Ireland — we’d get to them quicker by looking at our politicians first — but he was a wannabe villain that slipped through the cracks of a mostly law-abiding society. A wannabe villain that would have been crushed by the RUC or the paramilitaries of old."
Brennan knows how to keep a story moving, planting narrative hooks toward the ends of his chapters and throwing in at least one character wrinkle unlikely to have shown up in an old-time boxing story. But what may have impressed me most is his engagement with MMA, a sport until now shoved somewhere back in my consciousness next to street luge, half-pipe, and bicycle motocross. MMA is compounded of styles and techniques taken from many fighting sports, and Welcome to the Octagon
is full of observations about the resulting complexity and the demands it places on the fighters.
Welcome to the Octagon
has heart, humor, and respectful engagement with its subject. What's not to like?
© Peter Rozovsky 2013
Labels: Belfast, Eric Beetner, Fight Card, Gerard Brennan, Ireland, MMA, Northern Ireland, sports, Terrence McCauley