I opened this book expecting a gritty, tragic boxing story, similar to what I found in F. X. Toole’s Rope Burn: Stories from the Corner (better known now as Million Dollar Baby) and Fat City by Leonard Gardner. And the story is tragic–a washed-up fighter trying to hang on to his champion identity while his body and mind deteriorate. His trainer, Spencer, isn’t much help. He focuses on media strategies rather than training regiments to try and keep “Sugar” relevant. But the author’s experimental approach to constructing narrative, character, and reality makes this much more than just another sad boxing story.
Writers have a romantic and sordid history with boxing. Norman Mailer, novelist and journalist, wrote about the legendary battle between Muhamud Ali and George Foreman in Zaire, Africa in The Fight. Mailer, who boxed himself, saw the sport as a metaphor for “the great gamble of life.” Hemingway was also known to get in the ring, although allegedly, he wasn’t very good. In On Boxing, a collection of essays on the sweet science, Joyce Carol Oates reveals that her interest in boxing began in childhood, an offshoot of her father’s interest. Unlike Mailer, Oates “can’t think of boxing in writerly terms as a metaphor for something else”; on the contrary, she sees life as a metaphor for boxing. She also points out that “it’s impossible not to see that your opponent is you” (4), and it’s this point that serves as a central theme and a playground for literary experimentation in The Laughter of Strangers.
The narrator, “Sugar” Willem Floures, begins to hint almost immediately that he and his opponents are not exactly distinct. “I know how they’ll fight just like they know how I’ll fight./They know what I’m thinking./I know what they are thinking./We are alike because we are alike.” In this prose, which is often formatted like poetry, we see Sugar’s struggles, written out in the rhythm of combinations and rapid-fire jabs. The stream-of-consciousness narration is a vehicle for displaying Sugar’s confusion. He often thinks things that the reader cannot fully comprehend or trust. Near the beginning of the book, Sugar admits that he is often confused and not in touch with reality. “I’m quick to act but last to understand the effects of what I’ve done. By the time you read any of what I’ve said, I will have yet to fully comprehend the telling. I might tell you everything, more than I want to tell, and it wont hit me as reality for weeks, months; it might never register as reality.”
The reader gradually realizes that Sugar’s identity crisis goes beyond basic confusion and head-trauma. A little further into the book, Sugar confesses:
I am not the only William Floures.
There are forty-one of us. A whole league.
I am number two, which means I am not number
one. How can you be second best to yourself? Does
it make any sense to you because it doesn’t to me.
The internal monologue isn’t mine. I hear voices,
All of their would-be voices, discussing dreams,
ambitions, and what it means to be ‘me.’
Later, as he looks in the mirror, Sugar says “My silhouette is cookie-cutter, just another permutation of the identity that is ‘Willem Floures.’”
Sugar’s self-concept is a mixture of media representation, his past status as champion fighter, his present, physically broken state, and his desire for “Silence,” a word that repeats throughout the work. The author hits us with all of these versions of Sugar, one right after the other, in a rapid-fire succession of punches.
Near the middle of the book, the forty-one Willem Floureses start to become actual characters. Sugar’s opponent, Executioner, is introduced in the ring as “‘Executioner’ Willem Floures.” ‘Willem Floures’ becomes less of a fixed identity and more of an idea, a quintessential fighter. After Sugar loses the fight to himself by split decision, his trainer, Spencer, kidnaps ‘Executioner’ in order to keep him from claiming the title. When Sugar expresses apprehension about the kidnapping, Spencer assures him “Leave it to me. You don’t need to understand everything,” which is a clue and a promise that the reader isn’t going to understand everything either.
With the title vacated by ‘Executioner’’s disappearance, Sugar has an opportunity to grab it. First, though, he needs to fight Black Mamba, who according to Sugar “didn’t seem to exist until it appeared that I needed another challenge.” In Black Mamba, William Floures “faces his toughest opponent yet:/HIMSELF.” As a tactic to psych Sugar out, Black Mamba starts calling and texting Sugar, leaving messages that often start out, “Hello Willem, it’s Willem.” Black Mamba, it turns out, is yet another piece of Sugar’s fragmented identity.
To add to Sugar’s confusion about himself and about reality, he finds new Willems tied up in the basement everyday. They seem to be multiplying. Apparently, Spencer has set out to kidnap each one. “There are three more of me, tied up, taped up, and watching, judging, worrying about what will become of me.” The author hints at the fact that perhaps this is a product of Sugar’s confusion and head trauma. “With everyone tied up and left side by side, the sight of them hurts my head. I get dizzy, the kind of reaction and altered vision that comes from a particularly bad concussion.” These things could be happening only in Sugar’s confused mind, yet even if they are, the reader is still forced to confront the nature of identity, public vs. private, the tragedy of being in the limelight one minute and a washed-up nobody the next.
I admired all the unexpected ways the author played with these themes. And as someone who has been in the ring a few times myself, I could see that the author knew his stuff.
Plus I liked the ending. But you’ll have to read it yourself to find out what happens. No spoilers here.