SUCKER PUNCH by Ray Banks (2007)

Review by Mike Dennis

The world of small-time boxing makes for an irresistible backdrop in noir fiction.  Films such as Fat City and The Set-Up gained classic status by their dramatic depiction of the hopeless nature of that world and those who inhabit it.  There are very few options for these people, and almost all of them end in flames.  This is the message delivered in Sucker Punch, a 2007 novel by British author Ray Banks.

The big time in the sport, represented by championship bouts in Las Vegas, is clearly out of reach for everyone involved in this book.  But that doesn’t stop them from dreaming, and when you think about it, that’s what boxing is all about:  one man’s dream to escape a life of grinding poverty.

Liam Wooley is not the central character in the book, but he’s the fighter from Manchester, the one with the big hopes.  He’s got talent, no doubt about it, but his temper may prevent him from “turning pro”, which is his immediate goal.  He’s laconic to a fault, a sort of young Charles Bronson, who just wants to train in the gym and be left alone.

Cal Innes, a former private investigator, is out of prison on probation.  He forges prescriptions to quench his pill habit and does odd jobs for Paulo Gray, owner of a seedy gym in Manchester.  Paulo gets an invitation to send a fighter to Los Angeles to compete in a small tournament, where it’s rumored that high-level scouts will be in attendance.  He decides to send Liam, his best prospect, and asks Cal to keep him company on the trip and make sure he shows up for the bouts.

Told from Cal’s point of view, the novel takes them to LA, during which time Cal can’t find anywhere to smoke, he rubs Liam the wrong way, and he meets Nelson Byrne, a stranger in a bar who says he’s a former fighter, but now “does some coaching and scouting”.  Hmmm.

There’s enough British street slang in this book to fill a soccer stadium, and I often had to pause to try to decipher it.  But Banks was able to deftly switch back and forth from British voice to American in those scenes where Cal is speaking to Byrne.

I was over halfway through the book before I realized that nothing was really happening.  The first hint of real conflict didn’t come until later, and normally, this is the kiss of death for any crime novel.  Banks’ prose, though, is so hard-hitting that it holds your attention through it all and makes you forget that the story is just standing still.  David Goodis was a master at this, forcing you to turn the page on the strength of his writing alone.

Banks’ Manchester, always cold and drizzly, brings to mind Goodis’ Philadelphia, a miserable, bleak place where the minor players have no shot and where their dreams are easily extinguished.

Be careful when you read Sucker Punch.  You’ll need to take a shower to wash away the grime.

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