Desperation drips from the pages of Michael Farris Smith’s latest novel, “The Fighter”, but it’s a shot at redemption, and rooting for a character we just can’t let fall, that keeps one committed to this tormented southern gothic.
Mississippi is painted like a fantasy here with Jake Boucher escaping with an envelope of cash through the midnight delta, twisted over which of his enemies to repay first. He’s got a notebook full of names and a bag of red pills to keep his mind straight. A quarter century of bare-knuckle fighting and heavy drinking have finally quieted the demons of his abandoned youth.
In between the then and now of his suffering was a love that drives him forward. His step mother lies in Hospice care, her own mind taken by dementia much as Jake’s butchering of his own finances with gambling and drug debts have left him in this sorry state. He owes 12 large to underworld matriarch Big Momma Sweet, who’s set every bruiser in the delta on Jake’s scent in order to extract revenge.
Smith puts all of this before the reader in the opening pages of the novel and never lets up from there. The prose strikes like a well-timed combo inside a narrative that ebbs and flows like an old school, 15-round title match. We even live with the knowledge that Boucher will die on stage or in the ring if some saving grace isn’t found.
Smith built his career on delivering novels that are often compared to Cormac McCarthy and Larry Brown, with savage landscapes all but consuming characters pushed to the edge of sanity. There’s no shortage of that in “The Fighter”. From the opening pages Boucher, whose name means the butcher in French, is wound so tight down in a pit of despond that one expects him to dissolve or simply give out.
The Wild Turkey and red pills keep Jake going, physically at least, while he struggles for a solution to what torments his mind. He’s hocked his stepmother Maryann’s ancestral estate, hundreds of acres and an old farmhouse, just to stay one step ahead of his debts. The bankers have called his notes, and unless he pays off Big Momma Sweet, it’s all pointless because she will kill him anyway.
It’s the way Smith delivers the backstory of Jake’s troubled childhood, and the way Maryann tried to love him to normalcy, that will keep most readers committed to the story despite its brutality. Smith makes every object count. Every scene will come back to impact the story in the end. Much like a fighter’s training (each day he spends in the gym skipping rope or delivering blows to a weighted bag) will give him the strength to finish, Smith puts down one hint after another, each artfully concealed until its time on stage is required.
Second wind for “The Fighter”
The story sags in the middle as Smith introduces a second story line of Annette, a carnival worker holding on to her youthful beauty and the power it holds over men, while also searching for a father figure she never knew. But once this plot line gets enough tail wind, it dovetails nicely with Jake’s voyage into the darkness at the heart of Smith’s fiction.
There’s just enough magical realism toward the end of the novel to balance the absurdity of Jake’s drug abuse and his scattered mind. Smith has crafted a tale as much about parenting and grace as it is about fighting, gambling and the desperation of a mind riddled with uppers.
The novel has a thrilling conclusion and I found myself rereading it several times, in addition to the meditative epilogue where Maryann explains to Jake what keeps her moving forward despite the heartache of her own life. Much as the artful cover of “The Fighter” shows a road vanishing between two fields, one on fire and one lush and green, Smith has crafted a tale of possibility in which fully realized characters take on all that life can throw their way.