12 rounds in lo's gym
Reviewed by Matthew Teutsch, Auburn University
16 august 2018 archive
In 2016, J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy received mainstream notoriety because it served, to some, as a way to explain how "Forgotten America" helped to elect Donald Trump. The problem, however, was that Vance's book relies, as Todd Snyder notes, on "the conservative Reagan-era playbook of personal responsibility—a repackaged version of the 'culture of poverty' that blames Appalachian hillbillies for their own poverty." Snyder's memoir, 12 Rounds in Lo's Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia, serves, in part, as a counter to the still prevalent "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" mentality of the American Dream. Throughout the memoir, Snyder challenges this mentality, and the stereotypes of Appalachia, by exploring his father's, Mike "Lo" Snyder, work with the community of Cowen, West Virginia, as a boxing trainer.
Against the backdrop of boxing, Snyder explores various aspects of Appalachia from the region's connectedness to King Coal to the cyclical poverty that this connection reproduces. He examines constructions of manhood and how those constructions affected him as a first-generation college student. In this manner, Snyder provides, through his personal story and that of his father, a multifaceted examination of Appalachia that counters the mythos perpetuated in works like Vance's Hillbilly Elegy.
Lo's Gym began in the back room of Classic Curl Beauty Shop, a room that could barely house the 16 foot by 16 foot makeshift boxing ring. From that space, Lo Snyder built a boxing lineage in West Virginia that produced numerous champions in the region. From the back of the beauty shop, Lo's Gym moved to The Edge, an extension of the First Baptist Church of Cowen. The church wanted a space for youth to hang out, and Lo Snyder provided that space, along with boxing lessons. Some viewed the church's decision with derision since Lo did not attend church regularly. Eventually, the church fell under new leadership and they decided to take The Edge in a new direction forcing Lo's Gym to move to the Snyder's backyard where it ended.
At each step along the way, Lo's Gym worked to serve the community, not Lo's dreams of boxing glory. Lo Snyder's mantra comes from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Upon receiving the Jefferson Award in West Virginia, Lo Snyder gave a speech at the ceremony. He told the crowd, "I do this for the least. Jesus told us that what you've done unto the least, you've done unto me." Lo Snyder epitomizes service. He started a local coat drive out of the gym, and in the first three years, the gym donated over 500 coats to the local school district. To make sure that one of his fighter's uncle, a man paralyzed in a mining accident, could watch his nephew train, Lo made sure the church made The Edge wheelchair accessible for him and others who may need it. Lo paid, out of his own pocket, for each fighter's boxing license. When two local brothers died—one in Iraq and one in a car crash—Lo wanted to honor their legacy. The gym raised $5,000 for a scholarship fund in memory of two men Lo had never met. Lo accomplished all of this, and more, while working full time at the Smooth Coal Company.
Rather than taking a scholarship to play football at a Division III school, Lo decided to begin working, and he became a coal miner, following in his father's footsteps where they worked side by side for years. As Snyder points out, "Most young men from Cowen, West Virginia, dream of becoming something better than their fathers, but their fathers are what they eventually become. That's how cyclical poverty works." Throughout the book, Snyder traces how poverty affects his own journey into college and eventually towards his doctorate. The idea of college challenged Snyder's perceptions of manhood, and when he arrived at Glenville State College in 2000, he felt like he should still be in the back room at the Classic Curl Beauty Shop helping his father train other boxers.
Snyder, the first-generation college student, eventually fell in love with academia and "the dream of becoming a college professor, writer/scholar." While he wanted to pursue graduate school, Snyder also had insecurities as a first-generation college student from Cowen, West Virginia. So, he decided to shoot for schools that keep him close to home. Snyder chronicles his anxieties about college and the insecurities that accompanied him through the process. He does not shy away from these issues, and his chronicling of the struggles underscores the negative effects of stereotypes on the psyche.
You may be asking, at this point, "Where is the boxing?" 12 Rounds at Lo's Gym is full of boxing. Snyder fills the pages with a Hemingwayesque style that causes you to feel every blow in the ring, and he details the experiences of countless men and women who entered Lo's Gym and grew from their experience. He talks about the champions, but he also talks about those who may have lost more than they won. He talks about interactions with professional boxers such as Christy Martin who recalled her fight with Lo's Gym's Kathy Cochran at the start of her career, or about the time when a promoter wanted Lo's Gym's Alec Anderson to fight Daniel Jacobs. In each case, Snyder presents individuals, not monolithic representations of Appalachia. He takes them for who they are, people with dreams and struggles; people who want to believe and succeed.
Ultimately, 12 Rounds in Lo's Gym tells the stories of individuals. As Snyder puts it, "Stereotyped and stigmatized, Appalachian folks are easy prey, socioeconomically bullied by privileged society. We're the underdogs. We gather our strength from histories of exploitation and cultural degradation. Our stories are tragic and beautiful. In these parables of Lo's Gym's underdog champions, I write the story of Appalachia. This is who we are—fighters. We fight like hell, knowing the other fellow has the advantage." Snyder's memoir achieves this goal. The stories of Chris Short, Craig Wright, Claudia Cline, Myria Gumm, and others make up the story of Lo's Gym and its legacy.
Snyder, Todd D. 12 Rounds in Lo's Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2018. 240 pp. Notes, index. $26.99 paper.
Copyright © 2018 by Matthew Teutsch