Continuing the series Publication Evaluation senior staff writer Elliott Grigg reviews The Ghost of Johnny Tapia, a Hamilcar publication authored by Paul Zanon, and the second in their Noir series.
Wow – I touch on this book in reverse, as the enduring recollection on completing it was a feeling of giddy stupefaction; something emotionally drained and akin to the hangover sustained in the succession of a heady night out.
At only fifty-seven pages, this book is suffused with such dense content and compacted subject matter that you are left reeling somewhat, quite suspect that you could have ingested or been exposed to the breadth of information valiantly included. Written with Teresa Tapia and littered with quotes and anecdotal insight from, amongst others, Johnny’s friend and agent, Bob Case, this account journeys Jonny’s life, weaving in overarching themes of death, destruction, divinity, destiny, dependence, desperation, darkness, devotion and defiance; and focuses on chosen, salient moments and Jonny’s most-notable fights to give a snapshot, vignette pre-eminence to specific biographical events. And given that, at the time of writing, Zanon must have sat atop a sensational geyser of Tapia’s compelling and outsider escapades, he deserves especial commendation for titrating and flaying the story down into the short that he has.
He remains true to his stylistic credo of effacing himself from the story, telling it in the words of those present or quoted, or through the use of short, snappy, factual sentences. This imbues the prose with a freneticism – apt to, authentic and characteristic of Tapia himself – and results in a holistic narrative style which interfuses the empirical subjective with the provable objective and commingles 1st person and 3rd person narration so that the book reads more as a collection of stories, with each becoming constituent parts, comprisal and sharing in the common, overall narrative arc.
In 2015, to celebrate their 80th anniversary, Penguin Classics released a series of little black books, which were designed to give an affordable chapter or two, an amuse-bouche sampling of the larger tomes in their oeuvre. The Hamilcar Noir series appears to lean towards this ethos, rather than satiate their readers in the same way that they do through their usual, longer, expatiated publications; and I can’t yet work out whether including Tapia’s story in this condensed form is sufficient and bijou or in fact under nourishing. (Although if one were seeking to challenge themselves to distil the Tapia story into its tersest form, you would be hard pressed to outdo the quote by Bruce Trampler, which introduces chapter five, and surmises: ‘He had talent and skills from the beginning. […] Big heart, advanced boxing smarts, great athlete, solid chin, decent punch, above average hand speed and terrific instincts. That he overcame so much negativity and drama outside the ring made him, to my way of thinking, even greater than his ring record shows.’)
What I can say is that this book is an entertaining read. It is accessible, readily digestible and, depending on your engagement and literateness, you can finish it within an hour or so, making it especially suitable for anyone commuting or to-be-taking a short plane journey. It’s a fresh perspective in the Tapia canon, and should be enjoyed as such. In a world where everyone’s finite allocation of cognitive bandwidth is constantly being wrestled and pulled and invited to be consumed by competing media and influences, there remains more than enough material here to fulfil a detailed Tapia index, to store the information within your temporal lobes and to recall it as and when necessary; though it would have been interesting to see how Zanon would have attacked the story had he been given the freedom in layout and framework to elaborate, as he did so successfully in the autobiographies of Jimmy Tibbs, Martin Murray and Jamie Moore.
Whilst it would have been easy to lose oneself in the corybantic legend of Jonny Tapia, and to thus posthumously romanticise his specific flaws – particularly his drug abuse – this story eschews that conceited temptation; and instead remains the faithful, literary equivalent of its subject: one part tragic, harrowing and cautionary; and another, seduced by the gunslingers and outlaw ethic of its foundation.
Johnny Tapia may well have been an anti-hero, but he was our hero – boxing's hero – nonetheless.
My rating 4/5
Want to learn more about The Ghost Of Tapia then click here.