This Bloody Mary Is The Last Thing I Own
By Jonathan Rendall
The Ecco Press, $23.95
How gratifying to discover that the most entertaining boxing book of the year has nothing whatever to do with Muhammad Ali. As the Ali oeuvre multiplies apace, British journalist Jonathan Rendall offers a refreshing alternative: an innocents-abroad account of his own adventures as both a boxing writer and an agent-adviser to a fighter.
By far the most compelling of the various eccentrics Rendall re-creates for us, with a novelist's deft touch for character, is Jack (Kid) Berg, a 1930s junior welterweight champion from Britain who doggedly refuses to acknowledge the passing of time. It was not a rejection of the aging process that kept Berg on the go, writes Rendall, so much as it was a sincere belief that "his boxing and New York days had only just ended and that he could reactivate them whenever he wanted."
Berg conducts Rendall on a tour of contemporary Harlem that is both hilarious and heartrending. "Haven't been there for ages," he informs the author. "It must be seven or eight years now." In fact, it has been more like 60 years. Berg is shocked to discover that the Cotton Club is no longer the hot spot of yore and that the Polo Grounds, where he defeated the legendary Kid Chocolate in 1930, has been demolished. At the site of the defunct ballpark, Berg and Rendall are suddenly surrounded by menacing members of a street gang, but Berg blithely defuses the danger with a lively recapitulation of his ring career. The thugs listen in disbelief. Following this harrowing (for Rendall) encounter, the old fighter deplores the decline of his former stamping grounds, then finds comfort in the fact that "at least we met some nice fellas."
You'll meet some even nicer fellas (as well as some not-so-nice) in this surprising new book, for which Rendall won the esteemed Somerset Maugham Award. Written with humor and compassion, This Bloody Mary is mercifully free of the grating tough-guy sentimentality that devalues much of this genre.