Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book Review: "The Fighter" by Michael Farris Smith

"To be alive at all is to have scars."
—John Steinbeck

Michael Farris Smith chose the above epigraph for his new novel, The Fighter, and there may be few epigraphs more well-matched than this one.

Jack Boucher has been fighting since nearly the day he was born. Abandoned at a young age, shifted from foster home to foster home, he quickly learned not to get attached to anyone or anything, to always watch his back. At 12 he finally finds Maryann, the foster mother who wants to care for Jack, wants him to know he's worthy of being cared about. But now Maryann suffers from dementia, and most days doesn't even know her own name, let alone Jack's.

And Jack has more than his own share of problems. Decades of bare-knuckle fighting have left him in unspeakable pain, and the immense number of concussions he has sustained through the years has left his brain shell-shocked. He carries with him a notebook in which he has to write down those people who pose a danger to him, as well as other information, since he's incapable of remembering it himself. He's also become a champ at self-medicating, using stolen painkillers chased with liquor to take the edge off.

"He felt the twenty years of granite fists and gnarled knuckles beating against his temples and the bridge of his nose and across his forehead and into the back of his head. The sharp points of elbows into his kidneys and into the hard muscles of his thighs and into his throat and the thrust of knees against his own and into his lower back and against his ears and jaw."

Maryann has trusted her one legacy, her family home, to Jack. But gambling debts have put the house and the land in the hands of the bank, and he has only eight days to make good on what is owed before it is sold. For Maryann to lose her history, and for Jack to be responsible, is a loss too great to ponder, even if she isn't aware of what is going on around her. Jack is determined to get the money he needs, by gambling or other means.

There's one other drawback in his way—Big Momma Sweet, who rules the Mississippi Delta and has eyes and spies everywhere. You don't owe Big Momma and not square your debts, not if you want to survive. You may think you can hide, but you can't. Jack is ready to pay off his debt and finally get his life back—and then disaster strikes. Addled by pain and burgeoning dementia of his own, it appears he has only one avenue left—getting back in the ring one more time, despite the consequences.

Smith writes about desperation and last chances more effectively than most authors out there. The Fighter is often brutal and relentless, but there are notes of hope. Jack is a fascinating character, and you are drawn into his struggles, even if you have a feeling you know where things will end up. The story of his hard-fought childhood and the woman who saved him is poignant, and you understand why he's willing to risk everything for her.

I didn't love this book as much as Smith's last, Desperation Road (see my original review), because I found its pace a little erratic, and the relentless brutality started to depress me. But I love the way Smith writes, and this is still a tremendously worthwhile read, although hard to take at times. He definitely has a fan in me!

NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

No comments:

Post a Comment