BASS 2015: Ben Fowlkes, “You’ll Apologize If You Have To” from Crazyhorse, #85

Getty image via Demotivators

Getty image via Demotivators

Wallace went all the way to Florida to fight a Brazilian middleweight he’d never heard of for ten thousand dollars. That’s what it had come to.

~~ story available online (thank you, Crazyhorse).

I read that first sentence, and I thought, oh no, don’t make me read a story about boxing.

Thing is, once I started, I couldn’t put it down. I can’t believe how much I enjoyed reading this. Maybe that’s because it’s not about boxing. It’s about that moment when you understand you’re a has-been – and what’s worse, you understand you’re the last person to realize it.

By the way, it’s not boxing at all, it’s one of those things in the neighborhood of cage fighting or MMA or something; forgive me if I have the terminology wrong, since to me it’s an unfamiliar neighborhood. Wallace isn’t your typical fighter in that he’s perceptive of himself and others, and comes out with pithy insights (“He was four days out from a knockout loss and I-don’t-give-a-fuck had settled in”… “Coronado was somewhere people lived on purpose”). I should say, he’s not what I typically think when I think “fighter”. Of course, I’ve never known a fighter, except the one Paul Simon put in a song (“I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains”). Maybe I’d find a lot of fighters are insightful, if I’d just look beyond my preconceptions.

Somewhere in the half-page opening fight scene, I stopped gritting my teeth and started reading. It’s great writing: how do you write a knockout from the knockee’s point of view? Fowlkes shows how; he’s primarily a sports journalist who specializes in MMA. Maybe all writers of fight stories do this, and I just never noticed, because I was gritting my teeth too hard.

The estuary scene took a couple of interesting turns, and left just the right sense of foreboding to carry through the story, to remain thrumming in the background. At the end, the story as a whole took a fascinating, completely unexpected turn in the final scene.

Yeah, Wallace thought, that’s going to be trouble. But there it was. He turned on his heels and started back the way he’d come. Behind him he could hear the sucking sound of the man pulling himself out of the mud. The man swore in stupid, broken off threats at his back. Wallace decided he was going to let the man say whatever he wanted to say. That was a choice he was making.

For some reason I was particularly struck by the repeated use of a single simple sentence: “That was a choice he was making.” That’s not a sentence that should stand out; it’s not unusual, or particularly distinctive. But it stuck with me, and I was surprised to later find it was only used twice: once in the estuary scene that sets up the major narrative drive, and once in the final paragraphs, when those chickens came home to roost. But it’s not the roost you think it’s going to be. I should’ve been prepared for this, since TC Boyle’s introduction refers to it as a “tough guy story that … ends not in violence, but in a moment of grace.”

I’m not sure see a moment of grace. Maybe a moment of enlightenment. There’s a Buddhist koan: “If you meet Buddha, kill him” (the book of that title didn’t come along for another thousand years). That’s a kind of moment of grace. Wallace’s moment of grace is a little different: If you meet yourself on the road, you’re on the wrong road.

“…Like you’re the first fighter who ever got knocked out in a fight he never should have taken.”
Wallace laughed to himself. How many times had he heard Coach telling guys to step up and fight? How many times had he heard that spiel about how you didn’t make any money sitting on your couch? But that was before a fight. It wasn’t until after that things became so very crystal clear to everyone else.

I’ve said that my favorite stories “project into the future,” that is, they leave me with a strong sense of what will happen next, perhaps two or three general options. Here, I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next – and I very much like that feeling.