Saturday, 19 June 2010


Inspired by some Twitter chat, I’ve recently read back to back books about fighting.
It’s been a joy and I’d recommend you do the same. If you’ve read these, try a couple of others. If you haven’t, you’re in for a real treat.


Confession out of the way first. I had no idea what a Donkey Punch is. I hoped I’d find out somewhere in the book, but if it was there, I missed it. Tried Google. They know fine what it is. And now, so do I. If you want to know yourself, go take a look.

The novel is written as a first person narrative and in the present tense. Cal Innes tells the story as he lives through it, and he’s a wonderful narrator. He has a simple style, yet he’s not a simple guy.

Given another life, it’s difficult to know what Cal might have made of himself.
Perhaps the way he’s ended up is inevitable. I decided to avoid ‘boxing' puns but somehow have got stuck with a few ‘boxing stable’ ones instead and when I get stuck with something I just have to share it. Cal Innes is a man who would always look a gift horse in the mouth. He’s also the horse that bolted as well as being the man trying to lock the door behind himself.

Where he goes, things happen.

He’s suspicious, judges people by the way they look through his own bruise coloured spectacles. And he gets things wrong. Problem is, he can’t help acting on instinct. Wrong instinct, wrong act, a pile of mess to be sorted.

Cal, finished at last with his probation officer, is working for his mate Paulo at a boxing club. Paulo is hot on the chances of one of his boys, Liam. Cal’s job is to take Liam to a major tournament in LA and chaperone him. At the same time he’s supposed to be taking a holiday, but Cal and peace and quiet don’t mix easily.

Liam on the other hand might just have escaped Cal’s fate. He is disciplined, cool-headed (most of the time) and one hell of a fighter. Nothing seems to matter to him outside of the tournament and turning pro and that’s something Cal doesn’t fully understand.

While Liam goes about his work, Cal spends his time in bars. He drinks heavily in spite of himself, pops painkillers like Smarties and through a fuzzy head meets up with people he might do better to avoid.

We move through a world of corruption, bribery, hookers, low-life, helplessness and confusion. All of this is punctuated by finely written boxing scenes.
Everyone you’d want in a boxing book is here from the corner guy, the heavy-duty promoter, the ex-fighters, the coaches and the crazies.

It does everything you might like it to and more.

The twists and turns are gripping, the plot moves on from hook to hook and you come to like Cal and Liam more and more as you go on.

Banks avoids many things. He avoids being dull. Avoids the obvious. Doesn’t slow things down with back-story. Doesn’t over-ellaborate. Leaves Cal to do the work, and it’s a superb job he does of that too.


Towards the end of last year, a
story of mine was published in a volume of ‘The Reader’. The other piece of fiction in that issue was by Vanessa Hemingway, granddaughter of the great man himself.

On the back of ‘The Longshot’ Tom McCarthy says ‘Hemingway’s returned to life – and this time, he’s a woman’.

Now steady on Tom, I thought when I read that. Let’s not get too carried away.

Thing is, he didn’t.

It’s an extra-ordinary debut. Quite astonishing.

Like many a book on the fighting world, the ring and the gym is simply the setting to explore character and relationships, more specifically relationships between men.
The Longshot is not only in Hemingway territory, but in the world of John Ford and Howard Hawkes, only here the only woman to get a look in is completely ignored –there’s no way our fighter Cal (who knew?) is going to be distracted by anything.

Trainer Riley drives Cal to Mexico. They’ve been together since Riley discovered him as a wrestler. There’s something of father and son in their relationship – they’re hard men with caged emotions, they have little to say to each other or to anyone else, yet there is a tenderness that is touching and hard to miss.

Here’s a little example:

“Cal Shivered. Riley was already yanking his duffel bag open and pulling out a hoodie. He threw it over Cal’s shoulders. Cal nodded thanks. They kept moving. Riley reached a hand over and pulled the hoodie close. Cal pushed his arms through and zipped it up. They turned the corner and followed the signs for the dressing rooms.”

It was Riley who packed the duffel bag; he’s thought of everything. He gets to act without being asked. Laconic Cal doesn’t need to speak. They put on the hoodie as it they’re Siamese twins. And they keep moving forward to meet their fate.

Cal was doing well as a fighter until the day he met the machine that is Rivera. We know Rivera is hot because the desk clerk at their hotel tells us so at the beginning.
Right from the off then, we know Cal has a hell of a fight on his hands.

It turns out it’s a rematch. Cal is the only fighter Rivera didn’t beat within the distance. He’s been on the skids since, but hasn’t been in finer shape for years.

Everything looks good until Riley watches men from Rivera’s gym and his sparring partners work for the press. They’re awesome. The next generation is bigger and better. Only Rivera can outdo them, but even he will bow out to them in the end.

This is the point where Riley knows his fighter can’t win. It’s about the same time that Cal realises the same.

Even so, the fight is arranged and they don’t know any other way.

Everything builds towards the fight, yet there is more to the book than that.

When Cal and Rivera eventually do get into the ring, it’s spectacular writing. My heart was pumping in overdrive for the last fifteen pages or so and when I finished I sat trying to keep my head together. I was in a public place, see, and I didn’t want to spill my emotions all over the people around me. Had I been alone I might have cried. I’d certainly have had to get up and move around so pumped with adrenaline Kitamura had me. What a fantastic way to end a story – how often do we get to feel like that when the covers close.

I just kept picking it up and looking at it in disbelief.

Yep. Outstanding.


  1. Donkey Punch - Suckker Punch in the US!- is a beat. I love the Call Innes books.

    Thanks for the tip on The Longshot.

    You may also like in Eric Bettner & JB Kohl's ONE TOO MANY BLOWS TO THE HEAD.

  2. I'll go an look out a copy. Thanks.

  3. I adore all of the Cal Innes books. Banks has actually out tortured Martyn Waites in his treatment of his protagonist. But he keeps it real, horribly human and strangely poetic.