“Them that fought wide open didn’t last no tim, ‘specially among the heavies. The padded cell and paper-doll cut-outs for most of ’em. It don’t stand to reason a human skull can stand up under the beatin’s it gets like that.”

Oh dear. It appears that I have aged overnight. Yes, my thirty-second year on this blue ball has begun.

Already I can feel my body becoming more decrepid, the toll of old age setting in, my memory growing foggy. Actually, scratch all that. I feel fine! What’s more I woke up this morning to some lovely bookish birthday presents from Stephanie, which I am sure I will be reviewing on here shortly.

In an unusual manner, today’s book echoes my oscillating mood this morning. Robert E. Howard evidenced a fascination with physical prowess in his Conan novels, among others, but in The Iron Man he focuses on the damage that can be done to a body.  Ultimately, however, the book’s theme is a far more daunting contest between the limits of human endurance and the salvation offered by true love.

Howard’s narrator first witnesses Mike Brennon fighting against a carnival act in Nevada. The young man shows a great capacity for taking pain and throwing wide, powerful blows, but no real technical aptitude for boxing. As it turns out, Howard’s first person narrator is Steve Amber, a fight manager, who is at first rebuffed by Brennon. Then the intense boxer seeks him out months later with a renewed passion for professional contests. Never one to pass up a good opportunity, Amber puts him into training. He is dismayed to note that Brennon seems incapable of developing any real pugilist skills. His stamina and natural strength are his only real advantages, certainly not enough to justify sending him into a bout against a first-rate fighter. Nevertheless Brennon insists. His desire to win real prize money concerns Amber, as his rookie contender seems willing to put himself through any amount of punishment in order to make some cash.

When Brennon gets into the ring with Monk Barota though, Amber and his partner Ganlon realize that they have no ordinary fighter, but a real Iron Man. He cannot even feel his opponents punches, his body numb to the pain that Barota is undoubtedly causing.

“Bat Nelson true to life!” he whispered, his voice vibrating with excitement. “The crowd thinks, and Barota thinks, them left hooks is hurtin’ Mike – but he ain’t even feelin’ ’em.”

From absolute no-hoper Brennon is catapulted onto the national boxing scene as a star, a modern day Iron Man, capable of outlasting any opponent. True he does lose some fights on points, but he is seemingly incapable of being knocked out. Amber grows increasingly concerned though, as to why his fighter’s seeming greed for money never abates. His behaviour seems miserly and obsessive, a dangerous combination as over three years Brennon begins to slow down even more. He is compelled to continue fighting, despite Amber’s warnings that he risks not only serious injury, but a complete mental breakdown.

Howard captures the desperation and excitement of the early twentieth century boxing scene, but also the gradual fade from showmanship into sadistic bouts of bloodletting. Brennon rarely emerges from a fight not looking like tenderized raw meat. His obsession with fighting risks his health and all in the name of attracting bigger crowds, bigger pay cheques. Howard appears to be describing the actions of a near-mindless masochist – until that is, the story’s twist is revealed.

The writing itself seems anachronistic, but then The Iron Man makes no pretense at realism. This is the kind of story where a character in a moment of passion will exclaim ‘Applesauce!’, as opposed to a more vulgar expression. It also has a welcome beating heart full of sentimentality hidden beneath the bruised and torn flesh of the fighters.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. It captures the thrill of boxing, but not without a critical aside on the physical toll levied by the sport. A very enjoyable yarn.

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