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Friday, June 15, 2007

Boxing Stories

Boxing Stories (The Works of Robert E. Howard) (Paperback)
by Robert E. Howard (Author), Chris Gruber (Editor, Introduction)
Publisher: Bison Books (April 1, 2005)
ISBN-10: 0803273525
 

This is a collection of short stories and poems by Robert E. Howard, the author most noted for creating Conan the Barbarian. While Howard’s legacy as a fantasy author is more than well-secured, eh had an extensive body of non-fantasy work, mostly in the form of “adventure stories”, many of them having to do with boxing. Howard himself was an amateur boxer and avid boxing fan, and he brings that insider’s perspective into these stories. It’s very clear from his writing that this is a man who has been in the ring, not just watched from the outside.

I fell completely in love with this book, and these characters. The vast majority of the stories focus on Steve Costigan, a crewman aboard the Sea Girl, merchantman. Steve, along with his bulldog Mike, travels the world aboard his ship, and frequently ends up all sorts of situations that can only be resolved through the use of fisticuffs. Costigan’s voice allows Howard to play with some more humor than he uses in his Conan stories (though it’s still there), and in general, he’s just an incredibly endearing character. While the various and sundry adventures of Steve Costigan will probably never be classified as “high literature”, I had a blast reading about them, and will likely read them again.

The stories and poems in the rest of the volume deal with other characters, with little if any overlap between them (Steve Costigan’s name is sometimes brought up). By and large, they are all terrific, especially the story/novella Iron Men, which Howard apparently called “the best fight story I ever wrote—in many ways the best story of any kind I ever wrote.” It is a FANTASTIC boxing story, and in many ways, speaks to truths about boxing that are still true today.

It doesn’t surprise me that Howard wrote so well about those “Iron Men”—the sort of boxer who fights with a gritty, brawling style where they take as much punishment as they give out—he’s clearly fascinated and impressed by them, more so than the technical boxer who flits in and out. He would have liked Frazier over Ali. I can’t entirely say I blame him; while I enjoy watching a good, technical boxer, I can’t stand a showboat. It’s one of the things that puts me off watching modern fighters like Roy Jones Jr., who will happily dance around for twelve rounds showing off when they could have knocked the guy out in three. But I digress.

Obviously, these stories will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in boxing, but the truth is, they’re just good stories. Howard’s writing is tight, fast-paced, engaging, and surprisingly humorous at points. The stories of Steve Costigan are great for anyone just looking for a fun adventure yarn, while Iron Men and a few others take a more somber tone. I’m really glad I picked this one up, and will probably get into another Howard collection very soon. He’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors.