How the “sweet overcomes the sour” in The Sweetest Thing

How the “sweet overcomes the sour” in The Sweetest Thing

May 6, 2011

There are prizefights that begin with one participant looking so confident and establishing such a superiority of craft that you wonder if this mightn’t be a genuinely unique experience in the presence of a genuinely unique talent. But then, with a comfortable lead built, the participant takes a middle round off before ultimately showing skill enough to earn a decision victory.

The Sweetest Thing by Mischa Merz (Seven Stories Press; $18.95) is a book very much like that sort of prizefight.

Merz, an Australian journalist and masters-division amateur champion, has no want of talent. The book’s opening pages include a wealth of well-shaped insights like this description of the women’s dressing room at Gleason’s Gym in New York City:

“. . . boxing boots stuffed in every spare bit of space, a mirror and bench designed for makeup application, pink bandanas drying off along with hand wraps, and exfoliating sponges and bottles of conditioner jostling for space. It was an object lesson in the human capacity to absorb many conflicting ideas into a complex identity . . .”

The Sweetest Thing introduces the sport of boxing in such a joyful first-person voice that a reader sympathizes immediately with the narrator. You do not start by cheering for Merz to trounce a rival so much as find a fight. She has traveled from the other side of the world, combed for footage of opponents, and put herself through the rigors of a training camp. You hope someone grants her the test she seeks.

This is a book about women’s boxing and its search for respectability, but it is not a book of sermons. For being a double outsider – an Australian woman in American boxing – Merz has an uncommon perspective. And her observations about fighting are first rate.

“People assume that pain is what a fighter fears most,” Merz writes. “But actually it isn’t. Pain is familiar and tolerable. Humiliation lurks like a hidden phantom, it can tower over you, it is mysterious and confusing. Very few fighters are willing to sacrifice their trademark style for victory.”

That is a fantastic series of sentences. It explains a great deal about why, despite fans’ and commentators’ urgings, fighters rarely toss caution windward and rush crazily at even light-hitting opponents. It is a sensation anyone who has sparred knows well; you are more willing to take abuse from a sparring partner in an empty gym than a crowded one, which sets the hands on the clock of your true fear – humiliation, not pain.

One page later Merz provides even better writing about the experience of being hit in the face, one that nature prepares none of us for. And in the next chapter – aptly named “Big Hat, No Cattle” – Merz expands on the nature of her own discomfort:

“The turmoil within comprised a potent mix of distress, humiliation, and many different and disorienting facets of existential pain, but no actual physical pain.”

All odes to the writer’s eye aside, there is no alternative path to that insight. You do not write a sentence that good unless you’ve donned headgear and sparring gloves and been struck in the face by someone who knows how.

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