I don’t know about you, but I know close to nothing about boxing or the history of the sport. Nonetheless, I was really drawn in by Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke, a poetic sort-of-biography of heavy-weight champion Jack Johnson.
I think that alone is already an indicator that Matejka is doing something very right.
Because I knew nothing about boxing history (other than that people have been getting into fisticuffs pretty much as soon as they realized how to make a fist) I also knew nothing about Johnson. I learned a lot reading this collection — for instance, that Johnson was the first African American to become heavyweight world champion — but what makes this book strong, imho, is that I felt like I was getting to know this prize fighter and the culture that raised him.
The collection isn’t just about Johnson — there’s his voice, there are descriptions of him and some key events, but there are also letters from and to (and between) his lovers, mainly Hattie, Etta, and Belle. Where in the first part of the book, the focus is on Johnson’s early fighting days, the never-ending training and his determination, as we move further, it becomes clear that Johnson himself is not an altogether likable guy: While he often downright smothers them in affection and gifts, his temperament is volatile and his lovers know to do as he asks, or they’ll find themselves like Etta, “her face […] lumpy as a sack of potatoes” (“Fisticuff Difficulty” 61).
There is a set of poems titled “Shadow Boxing,” one in each of the four sections. These are particularly interesting in that they let us in on Johnson’s conversation with himself / his shadow; they show us that he is conflicted about his position and his success.
Toward the end of the book, Johnson loses something essential to his career so far: “It’s not just / / the training I’ve lost interest in. / It’s the ring itself” (“Shadow Boxing” 71).
Matejka uses Johnson’s own accounts of his life and fights as well as contemporary articles and other sources to build a complex portrait. The political climate of the time shows particularly well in the thinly (if at all) veiled racism of the newspapers’ accounts of his fights.
Over all, this book is intriguing and interesting and well worth reading.