The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith, review by Bruce Jacobs
Set in the famous blues crossroad town of Clarksdale, Miss., Michael Farris Smith's third novel (after Rivers and Desperation Road) is its own kind of blues song. The Fighter is the story of the orphan Jack Boucher. His long road of institutions and foster homes ends on the 200 acres of the never-married Maryann, who raises him with the only love he's ever known. With few skills besides willfulness and a strong physique, Jack leaves at 17. He aims to make his way as a bare-knuckle cage fighter on the backwoods circuit filled with "men who killed dogs with other dogs." They are "a suffocating mass of the drunk and disturbed."
After some years of success, Jack sustains a massive concussion and, despite self-medication with pills and booze, his battered body finally gives out. In his 40s, he drags himself back to Clarksdale to see Maryann as she lies with advanced dementia in a nursing home. Her multigenerational home is in foreclosure, and Jack owes $12,000 to the vicious local loan shark Big Momma Sweet. Good luck at a Natchez casino brings him enough to cover his nut, but bad luck rears its head when his truck crashes and the money disappears while he stumbles to get help. Talk about the blues.
Winner of the 2014 Mississippi Author Award and born in Mississippi to a Baptist minister, Smith writes with the Delta river silt and cotton fields in his blood and the vernacular of its mostly poor denizens in his ear--like the triple negative comment of a man at an all-night gas station: "You don't look like you never won much of nothing." His characters are the rural downtrodden who grow up "in a mob of brothers and sisters. Uncles and aunts and cousins. All living in three mobile homes on the edge of a junkyard." Fate plays a bigger role than faith, and The Fighter's plot rolls along on happenstance as much as deliberation. Jack's casino stash winds up in the hands of the young tattooed Annette, who's working a traveling outlaw carnival. A believer in what she calls her "church of coincidence," she runs into Jack at a gas station on the outskirts of Clarksdale and sees in him the link to the father she never knew. With the recovered cash and Annette in his corner, Jack rolls the dice on one last fight in Big Momma's boondocks cage.
In the tradition of the Mississippi literature like Faulkner and Larry Brown, The Fighter is rich in character and landscape, but more insidiously, in the hard life and meager hopes of those who live there. As Annette tells Jack before his last fight: "There is a great big world spinning around and sometimes it spins against you. Sometimes it spins with you. And sometimes it spins us right into what we need."
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.