In the interests of authenticity, I must betray unto you my initial reluctance at undertaking this specific evaluation. Yes, there was the giddy receipt of an advanced reader copy, and the seductive caress of one’s ego that such exclusivity momentarily confers; yet the temperament of the artist on approaching this week’s read was one oscillating between indifference and outright resistance.
‘What were the reasons for this?’ you may or may not ask. Well, they were two-fold. Firstly, the subject of the book, himself: Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown. Bundini is predominantly known for his working relationship, nay partnership, with Muhammed Ali. He was the gopher, the motivator, the spirit man; friend, confidant, wit, and the ghost behind the iconic ‘Aliism’: ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ (Though Bundini originally and regularly concluded the simile, now lost in contemporary repetition, with the encouragement, ‘Rumble, young man, rumble.’)
It is a dirty little secret, but a tacit truism nonetheless, that the majority of those born a part of generations y, z or millennial, and of sound, independent mind – of which I am one – hold stunted emotional enthusiasm towards Muhammed Ali, especially in comparison to our forebears (enthusiasm from whom is usually the sole infectious prerequisite for inspiring such fascination in their descendants). Of course, the desire for creditability means one must usually pay hollow lip service to the populist altar that accepts him as one of, if not the greatest, but there is a disassociation here between superficial ordinance and a true belief in the sacrament.
My feelings on the matter were that the Ali canon, comprising, as it does, of innumerate column inches, biographies, Hollywood films, documentaries (official and unofficial), podcasts, poems, comics, magazine features, songs, games, photographs and illustrated books, had frankly been flogged to a merciless and uncultured death; and that if I was unwilling to further indulge in any renewed representations of the superstar, then why on earth should my interest rouse for a 280-page exposition on his cornerman?
Secondly, and this a personal prejudice perhaps entirely idiosyncratic to I – and one which thus leaves me vulnerable to assailment – but on perusing the cover, one becomes immediately aware that this book is authored by a professor, a professor of rhetoric and writing, no less. Now, whilst this title obviously betrays a lofty, intellectual acuity, it is my opinion and hitherto experience that the writing of career academics can be one often hampered by a standardised prosal style perhaps best described as sombrely frigid; as though in studying any specialism with such dedicated hyper-focus, the parts of one’s psyche given to spontaneity, freeform creativity, impulsivity and individuality are slowly abraded or remoulded, to be instead replaced by an analytical mind characterised by, respondent to and now trained in noticing patterns, behaviour, theory and association, but all from a detached distance and without the turbid subjectivity of feeling. Great in the relaying of information, knowledge or methodology, but not so much in inspiring a page to bleed. (Notable exceptions to this rule (though not all career academics, they each have held/hold professorships) include Christopher Hitchens, Vladimir Nabokov, Bertrand Russell and Will Self.)
However(!), this all said, at ESBR we are indeed professionals, and I have committed to writing a weekly feature, and Hamilcar were polite and chivalrous enough to send the book, as indeed Todd was in his dedication to writing it. I thus parked my self-absorbed petulance, at least temporarily, and committed to fulfilling my obligation to you, dear reader; beginning my first tentative foray into firstly the foreword and then onward into chapter 1 and beyond…
…So, what can be said by way of review.
Well, the writing is accessible, formal and clean. Polished, in the way one would expect a professional text to be. Not frigid, as such, but not florid or vigorous, either. The story flits between first-and-third-person narration, and it does so well. Predominantly a third person frame story, which synthesises the perspectives of Bundini’s son, Drew III; his cousin-in-law, Irwin Levowitz; Gene Kilroy, George Foreman, Jim Dundee, Don Elbaum; the fighting cowboy, James Tillis; and Ali biographers Jonathan Eig and Thomas Hauser with objective facts, to tell the overall story of Bundini's life through a collection of much shorter, sometimes distinct and sometimes interrelated stories. Professor Synder also uses the literary device of authorial intrusion to provide smatterings of additional theory, context and analysis, and to include several wonderfully sentimental and personal asides. The book benefits from the latter of these immensely and was diminished only in the parsimony of their admittance. The recounts of Todd’s father’s fanatical relationship to Muhammed Ali, their moving, shared pilgrimage to Deer Lake, and Todd's own reflections on what it meant to be ‘writing the wrongs’ of his father’s past – by becoming a first-generation college student and now professor – were some of the most tender and enjoyable highlights of the book.
Comprised of 12 chapters, yet replete with numerous mid-chapter shifts to accommodate changes either in scene, interviewee or perspective, the narrative does feel discursive, schizophrenic and a challenge, however, in parts, to follow. With the introduction of someone new, there is also the surplus baggage of context, which Professor Snyder ensures that we inescapably tow along with us (the pattern usually following (firstly) how this new character met Bundini, (secondly) how their relationship developed and then, finally, elucidation upon the kernel of the story which holds the actual interest). And whilst this certainly makes the overall portrayal feel fleshy and weighty, it does so to its detriment; like the atherosclerotic arteries of the corpulent, the heart of the story really labours under this unnecessary excess. Bibliographic references find repeated introduction throughout, also, giving one the impression that what this book would have really benefitted from would have been a trenchant editor; though I guess that in starting the necessary process of flaying or paring some of this flesh from the bone, one would then encounter the consequent difficulty of knowing quite when and where to stop...
To give examples of what I mean by this, we are treated to pages of Don King’s story, from his graduation at John Adams High School in Cleveland, to his dropping out of Kent State University; from his running of illegal bookmakers, to his killing of a man attempting to rob said bookmakers; his time in prison, his release, his fledging involvement in boxing, and then his eventual promotional ties to Ali. We are given a comprehensive biography of Drew III, which, though diluted, is woven in throughout (though additionally, I guess, given that the title of the book is Bundini and that Drew III is, himself, a Bundini, that this is at least not a false advertisement); from his childhood, his adolescence, his involvement in the big Ali fights of the time, his initial dropping out of college, his navy career, his redemptive graduation, business ventures, failures and successes. We even learn of Bundini’s grandkids' achievements, all the while whilst wrestling with the guilty suspicion that our time could have been saved had we have just been privy to the family scrapbook.
There are also – and I know Bundini cannot be referenced without mention of Ali – lost swathes of text, where we follow the action of the salient Ali fights of the era, and indeed Ali himself, so immersively that you would be forgiven for thinking that you had lapsed into the reading of yet another Ali biography. When describing Ali, the author also seems to dispense with his considered objectivity, momentarily, and yields, surprisingly, to hyperbole in summarising not only Ali's mystique, but also specific events within Ali's career – his victory over Foreman, for example, being described as one ‘preordained from the Gods’. But to the author's wider, lasting credit, he actually does a commendable job not to gush too effusively over Ali’s history, or at least the reimagined version, and he does shine a critical light on several of the often elided and purposefully forgotten parts of the contentious Ali story and persona. That said, complete video footage of Ali’s professional fights (or at least the notable ones) is now readily available online and each fight has already been described at length in numerous places, which makes the rehashing of the action here, and its tangential recontexualisation or rerelation to Bundini, seem unnecessary and tautologous.
Now, that said, what I am about to write may seem surprising and perhaps contradictory. You may, until this point, be under the impression that this is a negative review. But please bear with me…
There is a section in this book that stood the hairs upon the nape of my neck, that sent shivers over my entire body and then sent me into seconds – but what seemed like an age – of the contrasting sensation of deathly chills intermixed with hot flashes. This was the section where Synder, using Victor Solano as raconteur (for those wishing to know more about Solano, his background and connection to Bundini finds the expected elaboration), tells of Bundini on his death bed, and of the combinatory visit he received from both Ali and Solano. I defy anyone who has not had to say goodbye to someone - who has ever had to give that speech - to not be acutely stirred by this passage. In having the command of language and the perfect awareness to use such a simple, subtle and understated literal style, Synder renders this scene so vividly and inspires such an original, visceral reaction – one that transcends the musty intellectual appreciation which books mostly arouse – that he deserves the utmost applause, approbation and he has, for whatever it’s worth, my personal, enduring gratitude. Experiences like that do not come along very often.
Furthermore, it is said, especially amongst the pious, that contrast is God’s own device to enhance the beauty of his creation, and such an analogy is at play here. Without all the fleshy prolixity – the interesting but extraneous detail – the culmination of this moment would not be so profound; the weight of poignancy not so heavily received. And so, if all that went before was merely a preparatory shift in cognitive energy, leading and corralling us; the pulling back of the mental elastic, as it were; before our eventual release, shot headlong into maudlin sentimentality, then it was unquestionably worth every word of it. This book is worth it for that alone.
Aware that I am perhaps now ironically approaching the same interminable circumlocution that I have accused in others, I shall leave you now, by way of final, passing, presumptive recommendation, with this. In the foreword, Professor Synder sets out a list of his desired aims and goals for this book. He says he does not aim to hide behind the illusion of neutrality – he doesn’t; that he wants us to see Bundini through the eyes of his son – he conveys the warmth that Drew III has for his dad, and goes some way to expressing the complicated emotional interrelationships within the Bundini family, but it is surely an impossible, chimeric task for us to ever be able to fully see Bundini as Drew III does; and so whilst this is a noble attempt, it is not complete success in achieving the realisation of this goal; and he aims to de-mythologize Bundini – here, he succeeds, but in doing so presents a final treatise more apt to the staid, cloistered environments of tweed-jacketed academia than the gaudy, oft-meretricious world of professional boxing.
If I can therefore lull momentarily into stereotype and preconception, I would have to suggest this book for an elder boxing fan. The historian might enjoy parts of it, but the contemporary fan will be lost in a world before his own, and in the family album of a man who died over 30 years ago. Not that there are not titbits of historical interest to keep you afloat, but you would have be of the sort who finds the political situation in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century compelling (I do), as well as the history of racial tensions in North America and the resultant migrations and relocations of various ethnic groups of equal fascination (all well told).
For a wider, casual audience, this book would benefit from more sensationalism and a tightening of the excess; from taking an imitative lead from Bundini himself and in adding in more ornamentation, more bibelots, personality and curlicue... Essentially, more hype, man.
My rating 3/5
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