On both sides of the Atlantic, for more than two centuries, the arousing vice of boxing has been a career option for the young, unemployed working-class. Today, such kids of the inner-city ghettoes – mainly, but not exclusively black and Asian - are still encouraged to turn to the punch-bag at the local gym, to focus and pummel out their frustrations on the road to some hoped for self-discipline by a charitable, guiding hand.
That one such stocky, even corpulent, kid, resident of Cross Plains’ Texas dustbowl in the 1920s’, was en route to becoming a cult writer of dark fantasy fiction, seems, from here, a highly unlikely career move. Except, on reading these twenty pithy slug-fests, it soon becomes clear how the opposite was true; how the visceral nature of his later sword and sorcery prose was semi-compensation for the career he almost certainly would have preferred.
Mainly published in ‘Fight Stories’ magazine between 1929 and 1932, each tale is triggered by one of two constant formulas. Our Hero, at some waterfront bar, on shore leave from his ship the Sea Girl, rues his ‘luck’ with women, or diverts a face-off by a sozzelled bar-room challenger not worth the candle, who then riles him when overheard intimidating another much weaker; or else we are straight in there, building up quickly to an argument’s resolution needing settlement. Each encounter ends inevitably in the ring, or, literally, a pit, depending on the friends his opponent keeps. Of course, the victor is always certain, but, from the start, Howard builds up a visceral language that, throughout, never falters or bores by inevitability of the result. The adrenalin sweats off every page. How the win is achieved is the priority, smoothing an almost heartfelt layer over the comic book slaughter.
You can’t help thinking how movie director Quentin Tarantino must have taken his cue from this approach. There is an echo. Mark Finn, in this collection’s Introduction, states how, “…Howard uses black humour to some effect, elevating the violence of many of his stories to a cartoonish, grotesque level.” Some might argue with the use of the word ‘elevating,’ but I know what he means; that the cartoonish-ness offers the reader an intentional, ironic distance.
Also, the danger of overt, patriotic bombast is tempered throughout by a deprecating, (and self-deprecating) tone, where the narrator, often pugilist Sailor Steve Costigan, or the sketchier Dennis Dorgan, is as much aware of his failings as he is of his strengths.
While the depictions of black boxers are unavoidably old-fashioned, they are only as simplistic as the stories themselves; a consequence of Howard’s personal experiences with those whom he himself sparred. In other hands of his day, the depictions could have been so much worse. There are issues though. Violence beyond that vented by the glove or bared fist is viewed as a satisfactory alternative should either fail. While the protagonists never cheat in the ring, Sailor Steve Costigan’s bulldog, Mike, occasionally comes to his master’s aid via its slavering jaws upon the victim’s throat. Today, such revolting little beasts would be put-down or, at the very least, muzzled, rather than cheered on as surely intended. Also, the cumulative effect of reading every story together, in book form, fails to bare their contemporary success. Such formulaic repetition may thus divert majority taste.
Waterfront Fists encapsulates the inter-war period of unashamed Republican aspiration when men were men and pugilists who required headgear and less than a dozen rounds were mere surrender pussies. But don’t let this put you off. Howard delivers it all with a well-informed wink.