The Real McCoy

by Darin Strauss

Published by Dutton

326 pages, 2002

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Strauss Lands a Corkscrew Punch

Reviewed by David Abrams


Darin Strauss never met a metaphor he didn't like. Picture those poor shivering words "Like" and "As" standing barefoot out there in the cold black void of imagination. They knock on his door and Strauss welcomes them inside, pulling them by the vowels straight over to the fire where they can warm their frostbit syllables while he prepares a nice warm cup of steaming simile for them to drink.

Strauss' latest novel, The Real McCoy, is home for the wayward figure of speech. Each page teems with metaphor -- so much so that it takes us just to the edge of exasperation (and sometimes beyond); but Strauss is a skilled juggler and to his credit The Real McCoy doesn't collapse under the weight of its individual sentences.

It helps that the book's central character, Kid McCoy, is a larger-than-life figure who is built mostly of speech -- the flimflam, thank-you-ma'am patter of snake-oil salesmen, charlatans and folk heroes whose fame depended on rumor and tabloid headlines. Very loosely based on the life of early-1900s boxing champ Charles McCoy, Strauss' novel invents a character who is himself an invention -- a reinvention, that is -- of a boxer named McCoy who is discovered by 16-year-old Virgil Selby in his dying moments after a brutal fistfight in Selby's small Indiana town. The kid drags the battered fighter out of town and watches him die in the woods. "Yes, sir, this is the beginning of things," he thinks as he buries the real McCoy's corpse in a shallow grave.

With the words of his mythological hero Gilgamesh ringing in his ears -- "There is nothing we should fear and even if we fail we will have made a name for ourselves" -- the new McCoy sets off on a series of adventures which include con games, boxing championships, multiple marriages to the same woman and a brief career as a poet. McCoy is a blowhard, a slippery-tongued blowhard whose main product for sale is himself. He's also a self-doubting insecure kid from "pissant Indiana" who never completely shakes off the guilt of allowing his namesake to die.

In addition to Gilgamesh, McCoy likes to quote Hegel ("I have no knowledge of myself as I am, but just as I appear to be") and Nietzsche ("Ceaseless Becoming weighs on Man like a heavy illness"). In turn-of-the-century America -- something Strauss describes as "blemished wild places, a hissing brier patch where dark fruit grows, serpents underfoot" -- McCoy ceaselessly becomes the nation's newest folk hero:

People needed someone. The 1900s were a moment of unprecedented artificiality, of simulation and back-and-front dishonesty. Thirty-five years earlier, say, day-to-day life had been more or less as it'd been for generations. But now horses were being replaced by cars, candles by electric light, mailboxes by telephone, "live" theater by pictures that moved, serious journalism by scurrilous "rumor rags," painting by photography, stairs by escalators… America had become a land of noisy forgery and wondrous pretense.

Swap a few words and Strauss could very well be writing about our own recent turn of the century. That's what makes The Real McCoy so relevant. Turn on the TV or snap open the newspaper and you'll run across any number of stories of half-talented celebrities kept alive by a life-support system of sycophantic groupies, lemming-like fans and spin-doctoring press agents. With his trademark corkscrew punch and brash nature, McCoy could easily grab as many headlines as the average mono-monikered singer. In Strauss' hands, McCoy becomes as much metaphor as he is flesh-and-blood character.

It's too bad, then, that the novel doesn't create a deeper, more lasting impression. If The Real McCoy isn't as memorable as Strauss' debut, Chang and Eng, it's simply that Strauss seems to be holding the plot in check, keeping it from the wild, unrestrained carnival side-show tale it longs to be. Plots are hatched, cons are conceived, but they're written at an arm's length and are so zig-zagged with flashbacks that the air is let out of the story's tires. Despite the appeal of Kid McCoy and his cast of supporting characters, we never get fully involved in the events of the book. This reined-in story, however, only slightly dampens the joyous effect of the writing. The Real McCoy thrives on that ingredient which made Chang and Eng such a dazzler: Strauss' eye (and ear) for vivid detail. Here, for instance is a description of Susan Fields, the tempestuous, theatrical beauty McCoy was destined to marry several times over:

Her hair -- you might have thought any nickname would've described the fury of that hair -- her hair was an adorable red tumble all over. She was sturdy (who could miss the fierce cords where her shoulders flowed into her neck?), with humid eyes that shone through their gray like lighthouse beacons through cloud cover. Hers was a face fantastic in its flaws -- such as her small, uneven forehead; on pale days it resembled the underbelly of a crab, especially when her curlicues like red crawler legs arched in on both sides. But sidelong-glancing, with lovely lamping cheeks and those lips that always swelled out like pink bubbles overblown -- this was the make of face that men who slept late on Sundays saw when they heard talk of angels.

Or, how about these sentences, taken from a boxing match filled with the kind of poetry and realism that I haven't seen since Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull:

During the fight's worst carnage McCoy missed a corkscrew and caught a reflection of himself in the hall's big mirror as he took a punch to his head. The image froze in his mind. What he saw was a man crumpled, as in death, blood jetting from his brow in an overhead curve like a ram's horn. The gobbets of sweat that flew from his wheeling face trapped the light and looked yellowish, like embers flying from a bonfire, or bees leaving a hive. He'd see that image for the rest of his McCoy days: the horn of his blood, the bees in mid-flight, and his long rodlike body, crumpled.

This is the kind of writing that exhilarates the reader and proves Strauss' talent, so firmly established in Chang and Eng. He writes with such energy that the words spill off the page. It's as if Strauss took a cue from the philosophy of his main character:

In the big flimflam, the bolder the fiction, the better. Preposterousness makes a lie more believable. The trick to the most extravagant canard is imagination, having the imagination to build your canard into something like a beautiful cathedral. Or, to put it one more way: Ask for the moon and stars, and you have a better chance than if you'd asked only for the moon.

With a few minor faults, The Real McCoy might not be the brightest star of this literary season, but it does twinkle and glitter and dazzle with a writer's love for the written word. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the God's honest truth -- the real McCoy. | July 2002


David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.