las vegas soul
Reviewed by David Vanderwerken, Texas Christian University
13 August 2012 archive
When I taught Brian DeVido's debut novel, Every Time I Talk to Liston (2004), in Spring, 2007, my enthusiastic students wondered if a sequel might be in the works because they noticed a number of themes, characters, and plot directions seemingly layered in for future development. And now we have that sequel, Las Vegas Soul, which begins precisely at the point Liston ended: Rodney "TNT" Timmons is the new heavyweight champion, and his trainer and first-person narrator, Amos "Scrap Iron" Fletcher, dreams he is sparring with a smiling Sonny Liston, the resident spirit of the novel.
But in this sequel, the spirit becomes flesh, in Amos's mind, through the character of Charles, a bassist in a jazz trio called The Déjà Vu's, an uncanny double of Liston's if Liston had lived into his seventies. Amos attends several of the band's gigs, and Charles starts showing up at Vegas fights featuring Amos's boxers. While Soul contains several echo scenes of Liston—a street fight, multiple visits to Liston's grave—DeVido demonstrates his fictional development by taking Soul well beyond the redemption novel that is Liston. Soul is about aging, life changes, letting go, reaching peace and contentment with oneself, and acceptance. The re-incarnated Liston, Charles, he of the checkered fedora, teaches Amos to appreciate and savor what Charles calls "moments of greatness" in one's life, those rare, unspectacular, and seemingly small epiphanies that are the finest moments in human experience. Amos and his surrogate son TNT both reach a nearly Zen-like state of tranquility by the end of Soul.
The accommodation with life both men reach in no small measure derives from their commitment to the women in their lives. TNT marries September first and Amos marries sister June eventually. TNT, the "crazy bastard" of Liston, has matured greatly in Soul, in a way surpassing mentor Amos, whose interiority is a bit pricklier in tone in Soul than his more endearing persona in Liston. After his crushing loss to Terrence "T-Bone" Taylor in their rematch and TNT's first defense of his title, TNT decides to retire. It is obvious that the horrendous beating TNT underwent in the first fight has cost him in loss of reflexes, speed, and desire. At this point, he is focused on creating his life partnership with September. While TNT does come out of retirement for one more fight, it's not for revenge against Taylor as Amos assumes. TNT simply wants one more repetition of the all-male bonded family of himself, Amos, and Unc, one of TNT's own cherished moments of greatness. After he KO's Malik Darnell in the eighth round, TNT announces his retirement for good, having "gone out right" in his judgment. Moreover, patient and wise June lets Amos have time and space to work out his own plan to gain perspective on his future in the fight game. Likely Amos will never relinquish boxing. As the two couples re-locate to Florida to live "happily ever after" as boxing-wealthy gentry, Amos acquires a gym and continues to train aspiring champions as well as continuing as a boxing talking head with CNN's Jack Nylon. June has made her peace with Amos's passion. The sisters, merely furniture in Liston, truly come into their own in Soul. The odd man out in the boxing romance triad is "Unc" Dwight, his relationship with Katrina remaining on hold in Soul.
With Soul's "big fight" coming in the novel's middle, DeVido introduces two new characters to advance the narrative: a talented young heavyweight from Arkansas, Lyle Mack, and Oktay Kemal, a cigarette-smoking Turk who moves up two weight classes to win the welterweight title under Amos's tutelage. Although a sleazeball West Coast manager poaches Kemal, Amos hopes for Kemal's eventual return to Amos's gym. Kemal provides a much-needed comic element for Soul. In Mack, Amos has a legitimate white boy contender for a title, a possible thread for a third novel if DeVido creates a series.
The strengths of Liston are equally on display in Soul—the insider knowledge of boxing strategy, training techniques, the negotiation of purses, Amos's creative pep talks, the uses and abuses of media, the ambience of Vegas and championship bouts. We teachers of sport-centered literature have been blessed so far in the twenty-first century by a resurgence of talented boxing fiction by the late F. X. Toole and the very much alive and developing Brian DeVido. Las Vegas Soul exceeds the reach of Every Time I Talk to Liston although Liston (the novel) had a pretty good reach (as did the boxer). According to Northrop Frye, comedies tend to end with a marriage or marriages and a re-affirmation of the conventional values of human community. The Las Vegas soul state of mind translates to Florida as well as anywhere else.
Brian DeVido. Las Vegas Soul. Kindle edition only. 2012. $3.99 + tax. Available from Amazon.com.
Copyright © 2012 by David Vanderwerken