TO SWALLOW A TOAD
By Peter Weston Wood
Donald I. Fine. 201 pp. $16.95
If a well-known writer of witticisms and dweller on the melancholies of modern man had produced "To Swallow a Toad," this boxing novel would be recognized as a gross yet imaginative departure. It might even be called a good fit between writing style and subject. But the jacket cover says this is a first novel and that author Peter Preston Wood was a Golden Gloves finalist, like the book's first-person narrator Pete Watt. Watt's voice is so raw, violent and perfectly limited that the book barks of autobiography.
Watt is an 18-year-old who describes his march through five fights to reach the finals of the New York Golden Gloves subnovice middleweight competition. It is just enough of a ticking plot to propel Watt's explanation of why he fights. The explanation resonates because Watt does not take up boxing for all the logical reasons we project onto boxers -- to escape poverty or to learn how to survive on the streets outside the gym.
Watt's father is a gentle boxing fan and a once-successful popular songwriter who thinks rock 'n' roll is a passing fad. His mother divorces the songwriter for a rich judge, and Watt suspects she does it because his father is weak. When the 8-year-old Watt first meets Lance, the youngest of his stepfather's four children, Lance is playing with the severed head of a cat.
The stepfather beats Watt's mother and slowly robs Watt of self-esteem. Watt's brother becomes a junkie, and his stepbrothers and stepsisters victimize each other with twisted play and threats of punishment from the stepfather. They tell Watt that he does not belong in their house, and he retreats to the basement, where he punches rolled-up socks into the walls. Watt turns to football and then to boxing. He doesn't talk much to other boxers; as he says, he is not in the gym to make friends.
Watt is the kid slumped, scowling and mute in the back of the classroom, or leaning, arms folded, in scarred sneakers, against a beat-up car, and this novel rings true; it is what that kid would say if he got older and wrote a book. Its many writing mistakes are entirely in character. Watt's sentences are often melodramatic. His physical descriptions are overwrought and frequently intended to offend, as when he describes snow falling like phlegm. Fear of black opponents leads to blatant racism. His fantasies about high school girls passing in the hall are gratuitously graphic and defiling.
Perhaps most accurately, Watt lacks perspective, irony, wisdom. He savages the most important characters in the book, his mother and stepfather, without making them understandable characters, his hatred a sum of childhood disappointments that can never be rationally catalogued. His realization that he does not have to prove himself through violence would be cliche'd were it not so genuine.
Watt's mistakes are real, and so are his experiences. Author Wood lets the reader know what it feels like to walk into a gym alone for the first time, what it is like to gasp for breath, to be powerless in your own home, confused in school and wanting to be anywhere else but a boxing ring. His character has made the boxer's fearful decision to raise the physical ante and see who hurts the most. He has some surprising strengths as a narrator -- his minor characters are unique and believable, and the dialogue is usually sharp and revealing.
The strengths and weaknesses of "To Swallow a Toad" are so tactile that the book seems more like life than art. If Peter Weston Wood is not essentially the same person as his protagonist, he is a genius unwilling to let on with a wink of condescension, of humor or elegant phrasing. If author and character are the same, this book is another punch in a family tragedy. Either way, "To Swallow a Toad" is an honest voice from a narrator who ordinarily would not speak like this to us.
The reviewer is a Washington lawyer and author of "Champion: Joe Louis, Black Hero in White America."