Television commentator Edwin Newman's first novel has several moments of inspired silliness. Between punches one boxer asks the other to define "oligopsony." (The second boxer supplies the exact definition, "a market structure in which a small number of firms [does] most of the buying," but loses the fight.) Holding court in a restaurant, a hoodlum who is trying to muscle into boxing lets it be known that he's under pressure from his superiors. "The organization don't like to wait," he kvetches. "Already I get complaints." With this, one of his auditors revolts. "I've had enough of the present tense," she says and walks out. In a different context we learn that the hoodlum is fond of punk rock, especially a song whose lyrics go: "Eye for eye and tooth for tooth, / I don't care, call me uncouth, / You cross me once, I'll cut you dead, / And sink your body in a coat of lead."
The novel's protagonist is Aubrey Philpott-Grimes, an emaciated Englishman whose chief boxing asset is his long reach. As a picked-on child, he summoned this advantage to ward off blows. All it took was the embarrassment of a few bullies, and the young man was on the way to pugilism, rather than the economics he was cut out for.
As if his background and appearance were not enough to set him apart from every Tom, Dick and Sugar Ray, Aubrey has a few more quirks. He spouts economic theory and imagery to anyone who will listen. (His best spoutation is: "Boxing is like a nation's balance of payments. One wants to export more than one imports.") He possesses an archetypically British knack for doing the right thing. And he exults in paying his taxes to support Britain. Endowed with such foibles, Aubrey draws large purses as he extends his reach toward the middleweight title.
Much of Aubrey's success-as well as his presence in the United States-are the work of veteran manager Fog-bound Franklin, a man who has carried on a lifelong masochistic affair with the English language. Franklin's linguistic maladroitness enables him to average one solecism per sentence. He credits Aubrey with a "photogenic memory," takes a liberal attitude toward the behavior of "consulting adults," admires "French prudential" style, ponders whether to petition for a "decease and desist order," and worries about Aubrey's "telescoping his punches." But his forte is the exploded cliche, as in "I wish it was all so cooked and dried."
Keeping track of all these malapropisms is narrator Joe Mercer, a reporter for the New York Star-Telegram. Mercer's idiosyncracy is to dust off and-tongue only part way in cheek-strike the classic attitudes of meldodrama. He regrets missing a dinner where the gangster vented his ire, "an activity practiced much less widely than it once was."
Yet, for all its tomfoolery and wit, "Sunday Punch" is an uneven book. Several characters fall short of Newman's aspirations for them.
Take Webster Bindle, a congressman whose stilted pronouncements are evidently intended to represent the Garblish spoken by men and women whose worst fear is that a reporter will trick them into uttering something significant. One can find funnier examples of such meandering mouthfuls in any edition of the Congressional Record.
There is also Simco Savory, a Washington host whose tiresome shtick is to leave his sentences unfinished. And there is Bobby Lou Bridewell, a gossip columnist with whom even Newman seems bored.
Newman has chosen unwisely to tether his flights of verbal frolic to the standard, dreary boxing plot. Aubrey wins several bouts, loses one through overconfidence and makes a comeback. Then he loses the title bout, apparently so that he can be shuffled back to England, leaving the Americans to puzzle out what he meant to them.
Edwin Newman has previously written "Strictly Speaking" and "A Civil Tongue," two able books which expose the sloppiness and triteness that pervade English usage today. If he keeps in mind that these same vices can afflict plotting and characterization in fiction, his novels-to-come should be much improved.