Those two locked in an embrace: are they fighting or dancing? That poet at her desk: wrestling or swooning? Antonia Logue’s first novel, Shadow-Box, enters this heated border zone with a tale of three intertwined souls who are all equally lovers and fighters. Adding another layer of complexity is the fact that she chooses three historical figures: the modernist poet Mina Loy; Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world; and Arthur Cravan, a sometime boxer, art critic, and nephew of Oscar Wilde.
Cravan and Loy are passionate lovers, Johnson and Cravan passionate friends who
also boxed one another. They meet in expatriate territory (Mexico), all three outsiders by virtue of sex or race or hybrid mind. One beats Cravan into the ground in Barcelona; the other falls in love with him forever in Paris. Upping the ante further, Logue approaches this love/combat triangle through the epistolary form, mostly as letters written in the mid ’40s between Johnson and Loy, many years after Cravan was thought to be lost at sea.
One immediately thinks: good for you, Antonia Logue. Make a wild fiction. Her characters roam over Europe and America, from world war to world war, through artistic circles and boxing rings, like uneasy ghosts. From Logue’s author’s bio, she appears to be Irish; it’s hard not to make obvious connections about Ireland and embattledness and poetry and mad love. If the voice of the thoroughly American Johnson sounds more than a little Irish, that seems like poetic license, an associative fallacy, and doesn’t diminish the beauty of sentences like this one, in which Johnson describes Cravan: “He strode around Berlin wearing hookers on his shoulders, them tittering and screeching down the Kurfurstendam like they were queens on a float, then leave them back where he found them, all legs and suicide.” And if the letters contain a quantity of exposition that is almost never the case in real life (“Dear Mina, So that was how you ended up in Mexico”), that’s not too grievous, either. Historical fiction always has a heightened, willfully artificial atmosphere, and this one takes place in the heady between-the-wars culture of the surrealists and Mabel Dodge and Isadora Duncan.
The problem with this admirably ambitious book is that, despite its abundantly passionate material, none of its three characters appear to be sufficiently moved by either of the others to attempt more than a few perfunctory interludes in the flesh: one boxing scene between Cravan and Johnson; a few sexy days for Loy and Cravan. Indeed the three rarely occupy the same room. Cravan is much invoked, but mostly absent. Johnson and Loy never meet in the present, nor appear to remember many occasions of meeting in the past. Johnson and Loy write one another long, long
letters in which they relate their respective
achievements (“Oh Jack, it was one of the most glorious moments I have ever known, being published like this. . . . New York knew who I was”), neither pausing to acknowledge the existence of the other except in the most perfunctory of ways (“My dear Mina, . . . You’d sure lived plenty by the time I met you”). Cumulatively, the correspondence takes on a but-enough-about-you quality that seems more narcissistic than connected. When Cravan makes a surprise appearance, he is no less stilted than anyone else (he says gilded things like “our love was not like others”), but at least addresses Johnson and Loy as if he cares whether or not they’re listening; unfortunately, he vanishes six pages later and isn’t heard from for the rest of the book. Instead, we hear dueling recitations of Johnson’s boxing career and affairs, Loy’s artistic career and affairs, all cast in the kind of thick amber light that bathes persona poems: it all feels like it’s been over for such a long time.
The intimacy that eludes Logue in her
depictions of love and poetry unexpectedly crops up, however, in Johnson’s descriptions of his relationship to boxing. Everything that is missing in the florid affirmations of Loy’s love for Cravan is present in the way Johnson talks about his own overwhelming desire to win, an impulse comprising skill, blood lust, and rage at the racism that surrounds him. During one fight, the white crowd chants “Die, Coon, Die, Coon, Die, Coon.”
Logue is at her best when staging Johnson’s fights, never flinching from making the blood run. How ambition feels in your body, the life-or-death urgency of it; Logue conveys these with ease. Explaining the fight from the inside out, Johnson says,
It is between you and the binds and the leather they strap to your fists and the rawness of the space between you and the fight in front of you, and not crowds or noise or panic or fear can ever get in the way of that space. . . . It is a mental fight, one of you will let go, will wilt and be the first to take a half-step back instead of going deeper in to plant the grounding punch, the one that establishes your invincibility.
It is as apt a description of boxing, or writing, as I have ever read.