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WHEN SOME EX-LINEBACKER comes up to you in Tommy's Lunch at three in the morning and demands a bite of your cheese steak do you tell him, in no uncertain terms, "With or without mustard?" You've got lots of company if you're the kind of person who walks away from a fight. Most of us hum along with Elton but stay clear of Father's on a Saturday night. So maybe if a townie leans out his car window to inquire, "Move it, ya Hahvahd queah!" you pretend not to notice. But you move it--silently consoling yourself perhaps with the words Kid McCoy used after he woke up from a knockout by Joe Gans: "I'm not a fighter. I'm a lover."
Well don't feel too bad about it, I do it too. So do a lot of people, including, most of the time, George Plimpton, the participatory sports journalist par excellence who quarterbacked the Detroit Lions in an exhibition game and pitched against baseball's American and National League All-Stars.
In the late '50s, however, Plimpton's friends talked him into boxing three rounds with the light-heavyweight champion of the world, Archie Moore. The incident forms the first part of Plimpton's newest book, a meander through various and sundry settings which Plimpton manages to connect to boxing, sometimes by the thinnest of threads. In Shadow Box Plimpton displays the hallmark of the true raconteur: he rambles constantly but never bores.
While Moore and most of the other fighters in Shadow Box are black, no one will mistake Plimpton for a Great White Hope. Rather he calls to mind the role Beau Bridges played in the early '70s film The Landlord: a rich, soft, and well-intentioned white boy mixing it up with blacks from the ghetto--emerging unscathed by some miracle, but not unchanged.
Not only does Plimpton avoid the pitfalls of ignorance and condescension which have swallowed many another author in his situation, but he preserves his image as the little guy throughout. Plimpton's patrician background and best-seller success might belie his little-guy stance, were it not for the unmistakable honesty of the self-doubts, fears, vacillations, and failures which he reveals in a detached and slightly bemused tone. Plimpton's little guy lives at a more enduring level than rich or poor. Plimpton trying to gain entrance to Ali's restricted quarters, chatting with Hemingway, or catching flak from Malcolm X, is always the moved one and never the mover. He lands where the buffets of fate and more vigorous personalities may send him, and we sympathize.
THOUGH PLIMPTON explores the fascination that the macho mystique of boxing has had for writers such as Hemingway and Mailer, both personal acquaintances of Plimpton's, he himself is no bully. Before his exhibition "bout" against Moore, Plimpton's pugilistic experience was limited to a childhood incident in which two older boys threatened him and his younger brother demanding their money. Plimpton's older brother raised his dukes, but Plimpton cried "No, no, no!" and handed over his 20 cents, an expedient of which he says "the shame of it lasts until this day."
The Moore fight had its dramatic possibilities substantially enhanced by a luncheon Moore shared with Peter Maas, a journalist friend of Plimpton's. Maas casually let drop that Plimpton was an "intercollegiate boxing champion" with a "pole-ax left hook" that could give Moore trouble. This utter fabrication caused Plimpton to have a harder time of it in the first round than he otherwise might have had, until Moore was satisfied that his opponent really was no more than the spindly-legged writer that he seemed to be.
Although the Moore fight is Plimpton's feat of participatory journalism for the book, it is mainly preoccupied with Muhammad Ali, from his defeat of Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964 when Plimpton first met him, to his successful regaining of the heavyweight title against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.
Plimpton makes Ali understandable as few of his chroniclers have done before. His relationships to the Black Muslims, his opponents, and his fans are all rendered clearer by Plimpton's insights. A most illuminating anecdote is Ali's description of the Near Room, an imaginary place Ali found himself looking into when things went badly in the ring:
...he imagined the door swung half open and inside he could see neon, orange and green lights blinking, and bats blowing trumpets and alligators playing trombones, and where he could see snakes screaming. Weird masks and actors' clothes hung on the wall, and if he stepped across the sill and reached for them, he knew that he was committing himself to his own destruction.
A vision like Ali's Near Room might discourage any fighter facing opposition the likes of George Foreman and Joe Frazier.
Most Plimpton fans know him through Paper Lion, which while appealing to adults, was also the quintessential gift book from suburban fathers to 13-year-old sons. Plimpton, as the self-effacing yet enterprising fan, symbolized a unique brand of genteel masculinity. As a gift, Paper Lion was a way a father could say "yes" to his son's interest in pro football and its heroes of incredible size and strength, competing at a level unimaginable for ordinary men--and "yes" to his son's desire to be Bart Starr or Mean Joe Greene, tough, hard-bitten, or just awesomely good. But giving Paper Lion was also a way of saying, "well, we're not really like that, we're really more like George Plimpton, bumbling and weak by comparison, but that's okay too."
Shadow Box has much the same spirit. And with its month-before-Christmas publication date, it will be a boon to the gift wrap industry. Yet in many ways Plimpton is writing for a narrower audience in Shadow Box. The usual sports figures vie for attention with literary and journalistic personalities. Readers looking for another Paper Lion may be stymied by Plimpton's pages on the death fantasies of contemporary literatteurs and the last words of their historical counterparts. Plimpton seems to be aiming at a readership more cultivated, perhaps, than the TV audience Paper Lion hit; readers who get their sports from the New York Times if not the New Yorker, who care about Plimpton's reactions to Hunter Thompson and Malcolm X as well as to Muhammad Ali--readers who, in fact, may more closely resemble the real Plimpton, affluent and Harvard educated, than they do his self-deprecating Mr. Average Joe persona.
Plimpton's subject matter may have dictated the change. Boxing has traditionally attracted a more unsavory following than the major team sports. Generally, its heroes have been hard-luck kids who apprenticed to the trade with bareknuckle street bouts, who became good fighters because they were hungry fighters. Historically, though, boxing fans have always included a contingent of aristocrats and writers. The boxing world will never have the wholesomeness of Monday night football, and Plimpton accepts this. He devotes more than a chapter to the story of a brazen stick-up at a post-fight party in Atlanta, at which all of the guests were figures from Harlem's underworld. Its perpetrators were executed one by one, a justice meted out not by police but by the robbers' underworld victims. The real world intrudes relentlessly in this tale, a real world alien to Paper Lion.
Plimpton's preoccupation with the death fantasies of his literary contemporaries makes one wonder: perhaps Plimpton is, despite his Peter Pan outlook on life, feeling the weight of his 50 years.
But if death is always a subject with grim overtones, the approach to it in Shadow Box is typically Plimpton--light-hearted, open-minded, and fanciful. Worthy and characteristic "last moments" are contributed by the likes of Terry Southern, Charles Addams, Allen Ginsberg, and Jules Feiffer. Plimpton's own fantasy takes place in Yankee Stadium. As an outfielder he runs into one of the monuments that used to stand in deep center field:
...a slight crumpled figure against the grass. The fantasy had not changed that much--still that thirteen year old whiz center fielder, bong! lying out there and the crowd rising. Quite unoriginal.
Might there not be another, darker Plimpton hiding behind the genteel journalist-at-large who just happens to do unusual and sometimes dangerous things out of dedication to his line of work? Plimpton founded and was for a time editor of the Paris Review, which suggests literary ambitions greater than his success in the somewhat limited area of "participatory journalism." Yet not a hint of jealousy shows as he discusses the idiosyncrasies and foibles of great writers he has known--Hemingway, Mailer, Marianne Moore. Neither does Plimpton give himself the airs of a celebrity, though he is certainly more entitled than many who so presume.
Some of the hidden drama in Plimpton's life no doubt revolves around how he was able to take a gentleman's preoccupation with the proper use of leisure and turn it into journalistic subject matter capable of engaging his abilities to the fullest. Shadow Box is another Plimpton tour de force, and a vindication of one American boy's determination to never grow up.
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