Monday, April 16, 2018

"The Glory Punch"

John D MacDonald wrote short stories featuring many different sports during his early days as a pulp writer. For some of them he had to use his fertile imagination alone to conjure up a sense of the game. He certainly never climbed a mountain, or drove race cars, or battled the bulls in the arena. I can find no reference to him ever playing football -- at least in high school or in college -- or baseball, or certainly hockey, although he must have played a bit of the first two sports. But he did enjoy golf, and tennis, bowling, fishing and, believe it or not, boxing.

It was during his first stint in college, at the University of Pennsylvania, around 1933. He was a self-described “grotesque,” standing 6’2” and weighing a mere 137 pounds. He entered an amateur boxing tournament sponsored by the college, where the prize was “a gold watch, redeemable for $10 or $15.” The match was over almost before it began. He recalled years later that his opponent was so muscular that “he looked as if he were wearing his armpits on top of his shoulders.” He made short work of the future author, “dismantling [me] as if taking down a rail fence.” That was it for MacDonald’s boxing career.

But he wrote stories about boxing, and the detail that he provides in these tales indicates that he vividly recalled all the nuances of the sport. From “The Gentle Killer,” to “Half-Past Eternity,” from “Big John Fights Again” to “Hell’s Belter,” his obvious mastery of what went on in the ring informed these pulp tales and made them come alive. Of course, MacDonald was more interested in the human drama and the world which surrounded boxing -- any sport he wrote about, really -- and he focused each story around a protagonist’s struggle: with doubt, with fading skills, with the corrupt, dark underside of the sport. Most of the time it worked wonderfully.

Not so with “The Glory Punch,” I’m sorry to say. It wallows way too long in the minute details of a fifteen round fight and frames the protagonist’s dilemma and struggle around a backstory and device so old that it had whiskers on it, even back in the immediate post-war era. It was published in the July 1949 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories, that notable issue that featured four JDM tales in it -- the most ever in a pulp, or any kind of magazine. It’s probably the weakest of the four, and pales terribly against the author’s “Blue Water Fury,” one of his best stories of any kind.

Our hero is Harvey Westa, a successful boxer known popularly as "The Doctor," for reasons that MacDonald never bothers to explain. But at age 33 he senses that his talents might be waning, a concern that troubles him because of recent travails with his personal life.

Things had gone a little sour. The club had died of snow-blindness and that had taken a cut of the roll and it had also taken two of the annuities cashed in to meet the obligations. Then the court had been too generous with Mag. An additional two hundred a month for her and the kids. Joe had booked an exhibition tour... He needed the cash from the tour. Needed it badly.

But before Harvey can embark on the tour -- which will feature opponents he knows he can handle -- he has to go fifteen rounds with Buddy Mace. And he's not so sure about Mace. He’s one of “the strong boys,” heavily muscled with shoulders that amaze even Harvey, with a punch like an anvil. He’ll need to utilize all of the skills he’s learned over his career in order to avoid too many of Mace’s hard punches. If he loses against this boxer, the tour will be cancelled and there will be no money from it.

The story opens the day before the big match as Harvey talks with his trainer of seven years, Joe Klees, over a lunch of cheese blintzes. Klees is concerned about the strength of Harvey’s opponent Mace, but Harvey keeps his own doubts to himself. He’s just returned from a visit with his kids, and it leads to the following exchange.

"The little guy was showing me the right hook he's been working on. He starts it way back in left field and I showed him how to shorten it up. He told me his mom won't let him practice. After the fight I can have them for two whole days."

"How's my girl?"

"Cute like a bug. She kept saying 'Where's Joey? Where's Joey?' I promised her the four of us would do the zoo day after tomorrow.”

"You turn 'em back to Mag?"

"In the hotel lobby. She shook hands with me and gave me the frozen puss. Nice to see you, Hahvee. I trust the children were well behaved."

"Jesus, Harv. A woman like that. It had to be a woman like that."

"Mag's okay. Lots of people don't get along."

"Who could get along with her?"

"Break it off, Joe." The soft rasp had turned cool.

They get up to leave the cafe, and who just happens to be in the same place, at a big table with a lot of his noisy friends? Buddy Mace, of course. Mace has to say something to amuse the crowd he is with.

"There goes the champ."

Harv turned and walked back to the [table]. The crowd there was silent, expectant. Harv smiled sadly down at the square, ruddy face of Buddy Mace. Mace tried to stare him down.

"Look, kid," Harv said in his gently rasping voice, "take good care of yourself between now and tomorrow night. Get lots of sleep. I don't want it to look too easy. You know what I mean."

Mace flushed and tried to struggle up, saying, "Why you broken-down --"

Harv turned and walked away.

The next day is fight day, and as Harv looks at Mace across the ring he notices how strong the younger man looked. "Strong and fast, with a punch in either hand..." The fight begins.

And it seems to never end, for both the fighters and the reader. In the first round Harv manages to get a few good blows in and dodges just as many. In the clinch, however, Mace manages to land two blows to Harv's kidneys. "It was like being stabbed with a hot silver knife." The second round is much the same, but this time Mace manages a blow high on the head over the left ear. "The power of it frightened [Harv].” In the third Harv was slow in the clinch and again Mace landed a powerful blow to the side. And by the end of three, even though Harv had technically won all the rounds, he was feeling it and worry started to creep in. "Back in the corner Harv knew that he was no longer breathing right. Mace's sledge-work on his sides had taken its toll."

Joe advises Harv to “ride out” the next two rounds, to play defense and avoid any hits in order for him to get his strength back. The strategy works well in the fourth, but in the fifth Mace lands another powerful blow to his side. The younger man seemed to be getting stronger and faster…

Enough… you get the picture, and you can probably guess how it ends, right down to the moment Harv, barely conscious, figures out how to end it. It’s like something out of the pulps of the earliest part of the last century and, unfortunately, you can see it coming a mile away. Still, the writing is typical MacDonald of the period, crisp and descriptive in its minimalist way. Worth reading once for the few moments of insightful characterization of a successful man on the downward slope of his career.

“The Glory Punch” is the only John D MacDonald story in this particular issue of Fifteen Sports Stories that appears under the author’s name. The other three were disguised under “house names,” bylines that especially productive pulp authors used when more than one of their stories appeared in the same issue of a magazine. I’ve always wondered how it was decided which story got which name. Did MacDonald have any input on the process? Probably not, as he certainly must have recognized the vast superiority of his story “Blue Water Fury” and would have preferred that it be graced with his name rather than one of the other entries. He liked it so much that he included it his first short story anthology, 1966’s End of the Tiger and Other Stories under a new title, "The Big Blue". It was the only pulp story included in the anthology but it certainly held its own among other gems like “Hangover,” “Looie Follows Me,” “The Bear Trap” and “The Trap of Solid Gold.”

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