Friday, January 11, 2013


Because booksellers have the need to categorize titles under some heading or genre, HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF NOTHING will most likely be slotted as crime fiction. Not that that's all bad, or even inaccurate—but the shame of it is that this novel by Zak Mucha, is so much more. It deserves to reach the widest audience possible, to be read and savored by readers beyond any single genre.
Above all, this work is a character study of an individual (narrator Johnny) and, in the process, a spot-on portrait of the not-quite-hopeless, living-paycheck-to-paycheck, stubbornly-plodding-after-that-carrot-at-the-end-of-the-stick life led by blue collar/middle class workers all across our country.
I know that life, I know these people. So does Mucha. And in a smooth, never-a-word-wasted style, he captures it all beautifully, perfectly; showing the best and the worst sides of it.
In the introduction, he writes: "This book is about people who know they won't leave a mark on the world and can feel their little bit of comfort and protection being threatened … To protect our own self-definitions, we are sometimes willing to salt the earth we stand on."
To make his own self-defined mark on the world (simply to have a "cushion" of money to provide him some added creature comforts or to allow him to miss a day's work without fear of falling behind in meeting his meager bills), Johnny (along with a handful of co-workers at the furniture moving company which serves as the backdrop for much of the story) resorts to the crime of stealing prime furnishings from select homes and delivering them to a fence for re-sale and profit. This provides his cushion for a while, but ultimately—when he is caught—it also provides the salt to contaminate his earth.
Down deep, however, there is more to Johnny, too much more than to allow himself to go down and stay down without at least one more attempt to build that cushion, to make his mark. In the closing paragraphs, Mucha writes: "From that point on, I told myself, everything would be simple—all I had to do for the rest of my life was what I had promised to do. A goal I would chip away at, bit by bit, until I had earned a new start … Apologies held no currency. They didn't mean a thing and never would. I would have to earn everything."
"Earn" is the key word there. That's all any blue collar worker really wants—a fair shot to earn their way, to make their mark with the work that they do. It is left unclear whether or not Johnny succeeds with his fresh start. But, by the close of the book, Mucha has done such a masterful job of portraying this character, making him seem so real—good points and flaws alike—that most readers will be cheering for him.
And I, for one, will be cheering for more of the Mucha  byline.
He's that good.
Strongly recommended.

PERSONAL NOTE: The foregoing is from my Amazon review of this fine work. As someone who has lived my life --- and damn proudly, I might add --- in a blue collar, this book really spoke to me. The blue collar life and the outlooks of those who inhabit it are so seldom presented accurately.
In HEAVYWEIGHT, Johnny relates how his father would come home from his job on a construction crew often injured. He would immediately ask his wife to bring him a six pack of beer. If he was able to dull his pain before the sixer was gone, then he figured he was okay to go back to work without having to go to a doctor.
This is the kind of stoic logic I grew up with and saw in my fathers and uncles.
The closing passages, where Johnny talks about having to "earn" his new life made me think of my father. He related everything to work, doing a job, earning his worth. In the closing days of his life, he looked at me one evening when it was just me and him in his hospital room and said: "I tried as hard as I know how, but I just couldn't get under it."
It took me a while to understand what he meant by that. But finally I realized he was talking about dying. He knew he didn't have long and, like I said, he related everything to work. In his prime he was a strong bull of a man and what he was saying was that if Death had been a job and he could could have gotten "under it" --- lifted it off him, in other words --- then he could have beaten the sonofabitch and finished the job of his life on his terms.
My dad spent practically every day of his adult life literally wearing a blue work shirt. When I hear the term "blue collar" it angers me that the term is too seldom spoken with the prestige it deserves.

1 comment:

Ron Scheer said...

Well said. You're right. There is little good fiction out there like this. I'd recommend Dagoberto Gilb's MAGIC OF BLOOD about latino construction workers. Also the 2nd season of THE WIRE, about longshoremen.