Slavery, boxing, & other things I’m reading (and watching) this week

"So, what'll it be...binge watching, binge eating or both?"Some random thoughts about a couple novels, Foyle’s War, and the AHCA.

  1. I finished Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad over the weekend. Whitehead’s novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize this year, is both compelling and uneven. In Whitehead’s narrative, the underground railroad is, literally, a railroad running underground, a kind of abolitionists subway that carries slaves up and down the east coast. Station agents are citizens and abolitionists who see slavery as the abomination that it was. The folks risk live and livelihood helping slaves escape into the dark tunnels where old engines pull broken down rail cars through the darkness. Colson, at his best, shows us the emotional toil slavery exacts. While many novels about slavery show us a sliver of hope, I like that Colson paints us a picture of the human soul in collapse. Even the moments on a plantation that might offer a respite from the degradation of slavery contain the dark anger and despair of life as a slave in America. Cora, Colson’s primary character, can’t relax or experience those momentary stays we all need from the confusion of daily life. Colson keeps that cloud of hopelessness hovering over her head throughout the novel. But Colson also falls into what we might call the Richard Wright trap. I’m in no way disparaging Wright’s masterpiece Native Son. His novel was a product of its place and time and stands as an important 20th Century novel that captures the abject despair of being black in America. Wright, though (as virtually every critic notes), gets a tad bit preachy in the last third of the novel. In defense of Wright, he was writing to an audience largely ignorant of the plight of Bigger Thomas, and Wright was going to by God make sure his readers didn’t miss the larger point about inequality and race. Colson’s novel isn’t quite as preachy, but I think he also loses some faith in his audience once Cora lands in Indiana at the Valentine farm. He’s done so well letting despair linger right under the surface of Cora’s life and then characters that might have had some depth get a little to caricatured for my tastes. More importantly, Colson’s strengths are bringing the pain of slavery to life. Turning the Underground Railroad into a real thing and not a metaphor fits with that focus on the real. At the risk of spoiling anything, the “Ghost Station” Cora finds in Indiana moves us away from the solid actuality of the first 2/3rds of the novel and into some metaphorical, allegorical mysterious space that we haven’t occupied anywhere else in the novel. Don’t get me wrong. Whitehead is a fine writer and Cora’s story is compelling and interesting. Slavery, Colson clearly shows, rots the soul of everyone involved, fueling a hatred that dehumanizes owner and slave. In a larger sense, Colson’s novel is an important reminder about an ugly and shameful part of our past that we can’t, and shouldn’t ignore.
  2. I’m about halfway through FX Toole‘s Pound for Pound. If you don’t know Toole, he’s really Jerry Boyd, a guy who didn’t publish his first collection of short stories until he was about 70. The film Million Dollar Baby, directed by Clint Eastwood and staring Hilary Swank, was based on a story in his collection Rope Burns. Toole didn’t survive to see the movie or Pound for Pound published and, as others have noted, Toole’s story is probably as compelling as his fiction. In point of fact, Pound for Pound was about a 900 page manuscript edited into a novel, and I’m always a little skeptical about authorship and quality in such cases. Toole spent his life as a cut-man and trainer. I’m not being entirely critical when I say his fiction reads like it. When you add in the edited nature of the manuscript, the writing can get clunky. However, if you like boxing and all the metaphors associated with the sport, you’ll probably like Toole’s work. Boxing, in Toole’s world, provides discipline and order to the chaotic world of the men in his works. There’s a reason that so many inner-city churches and youth organizations start boxing clubs to try and provide an outlet to the chaos of the poverty and tragedy of the streets. For Toole, this discipline is transcendent not in victory but in the beauty of a punch thrown correctly. At his best, Toole shows us a character’s joy when his breathing and footwork coincides with a left hook that strikes with devastating power. Men in the novel who lack discipline cheat, fix fights, and succumb to addiction. Toole’s no Hemingway, but his novel offers an insight into the allure of boxing not as an outlet for violence but as a place of beauty and the artistic possibilities when parts of an action come together as a whole.
  3. My wife and I are slowly but surely getting hooked on Foyle’s War. Set in World War 2, the series follows Christopher Foyle as he solves various crimes. There aren’t many guns, we don’t see any blood and guts, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen faster chases watching two 3 year olds on tricycles. In fact, the show is about as sexy watching a sunset on a cloudy day. And yet every night about 8:00, we settle in and watch Michael Kitchen (he plays Foyle) walk around in his 1940’s wool suit and slowly unravel whatever mystery he’s faced with this week. Simply put, and I know it makes me sound old, the acting in the show is stunningly good. The story lines unfold like a well-written short story with characters that develop slowly in each 90 minute episode. Show recommendations are always dicey things because we all think our tastes in entertainment are better than anyone else’s, and we’re shocked (flabbergasted even) that people can’t appreciate the humor or joy we find in movies or tv. (Everyone loves Strange Brew, right?) If you’re sitting around some night surfing through Netflix, give Foyle’s War a shot. If you’ve got good taste, you’ll like it. If not, keep your recommendations to yourself. We don’t need any reminders that our taste in television can be odd.
  4. The American Health Care Act passed the House this week. I haven’t read it, but neither did some of the House members who voted for or against the dang thing. My excuse is that I’m not paid to read the bill. I’ll say what I’ve said before on this blog–the issue isn’t insurance: it’s the cost of medical care. At some point, we need to stop this charade and either move to a totally free market health care system (where lots of people go without insurance and overwhelm emergency rooms driving up our local costs) or move a single payer system that creates a safety net for all of us. We can’t keep patching this mess up with bailing wire and duct tape. Most disappointing to me is that Republicans have had seven years to craft legislation and this bill seems to be the best they could do. Remember students–this is what happens when you procrastinate and wait until the last minute to finish your assignment.

About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Slavery, boxing, & other things I’m reading (and watching) this week

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Things I Read

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Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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