As fall moves on I’ve looked back over my recent reading, and I think I’ve been overindulging in fiction purely for fun. I don’t regret any of the books I’ve read, but I do feel the need to even out things a bit. But, having said that, I’m not suddenly going to dive into Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science or some other heady tome, after all a shift like that can give you whiplash.
So instead I’m reading The Good Son, Mark Kriegel’s new Biography of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Kriegel sits on the short list of sports writers who are closer to poets than reporters, and he’s chosen a fascinating subject here.
I first learned about “Boom Boom” from the Warren Zevon song of the same name. Even though Mancini was fighting during my lifetime, my dad wasn’t a boxing fan, so I only heard about the heavyweight fighters, and rarely heard about anyone lower down in weight class. Ray rocketed to notoriety, first as a real life Rocky Balboa with guys like Bill Cosby and Frank Sinatra signing his praises. He then drifted into infamy after Duk Koo Kim, his Korean opponent in a 1982 bout, died shortly after the fight. A fierce fighter in a brutal sport, the death wore heavily on Mancini, and haunted him further when Kim’s mother committed suicide a few months after.
Though the incident still chases Mancini, the book is about much more than that one moment or it’s aftermath. Mark Kriegel gives plenty of time to the heritage Mancini grew up in. The lives of working class Italian Americans in Youngstown, Ohio informed who Mancini is, and he is particularly his father’s son. He also looks at life in the aftermath of this kind of career, a struggle to accept that an enormous part of your life is over. We see the impact on his life outside the ring, knowing he’s luckier than so many other boxers to have held on to his money and health.
“Boom Boom” now lives in Santa Monica, where he hangs out with famous fans like Ed O’Neill and David Mamet. He’s the approachable kind of celebrity, from all accounts, the kind who never learned to resent his fans, even to ghoulish ones who only want to talk about Kim’s death. It’s a fascinating book, with all the elements that would appeal to a fan of Scorsese movies. Against the backdrop of boxing Mark Kriegel explores responsibility, guilt, duty, and regret with all the empathy and poetry his fans expect.