Book Review – The Knockout Artist by Harry Crews
First published in 1988, The Knockout Artist is Harry Crew’s tenth novel and the second after his decade-long hiatus. This one couldn’t be any more different to its predecessor All We Need of Hell in terms of tone, however. Where Hell is breezy and amusing, Knockout is serious and grimly told. There’s no trace of a smile here.
The Knockout Artist is the story of Eugene Biggs , former boxer from South Georgia but currently living and working in New Orleans. His boxing career having ended in failure, Biggs is now employed as a novelty act for rich and decadent patrons. His trick? He can knock himself out with a single blow to the jaw. Early in the story, we are introduced to Biggs’ friend Pete and his girlfriend Tulip, who turns out to be a drug-addict. Biggs himself is seeing a PhD candidate by the name of Charity, yet another one of Crews’ femme fatales.
The relationship between Eugene and Charity is based on the fact that Charity is doing her PhD on the former boxer. Eugene doesn’t like to think too much about this–he doesn’t like to think too much about anything–but as the story progresses he becomes uneasy about what exactly his girlfriend has in store for him. This was probably the most intriguing aspect of the book. Another strength is that the novel itself is told in a curiously flat and deadpan style that fits well with Eugene’s state of mind. There’s no adornment to the words on the page at all.
Somewhat less defined, however, is the role of the shadowy and kinky Mr Blasingame, aka Oyster Boy, who ends up making Eugene and Pete an offer they can’t refuse. Then there’s the fact that Tulip is apparently addicted to drugs, something that Eugene isn’t happy about. Eventually Eugene and Pete end up managing a young boxer by the name of Jacques. I felt that this part of the narrative started too late in the story (after page 200 of 270) and that in the end, the narrative ended in violence where it probably didn’t need to. This is a shame, as the first two thirds of the narrative was very strong. It’s like Crews threw too many balls in the air; as he wasn’t sure how he was going to catch them, he just grabbed the main characters and had them exit stage right on the last page.
There’s more too it than that, of course. This is a substantial book and I feel I haven’t done it justice here, but if I’m a little disappointed by the final stanza, it’s only because I felt the rest of The Knockout Artist to be top notch.