The Fighting Hemingways

Tony Bukowski was an ex-Marine who wrote short stories about the North Woods and had a good, stiff jab. It was Tony’s contention that all graduate students should be required to spar three rounds at least once a week. He said it was good for the soul. So Glenn Schaeffer and I signed on immediately: boxing every Friday afternoon in the old Field House on the University of Iowa campus, where Glenn and Tony and I were wanna-be writers in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

While I can’t speak for Tony, I do know that Glenn and I weren’t particularly concerned about our souls. Rather, we wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway boxed, and therefore so would we. And so we’d go to the Field House every Friday afternoon and lace on our spongy Everlast 16-ounce boxing gloves and have at it, much as we imagined Hemingway and Ezra Pound and even James Joyce had done it in Paris.

Now and then, Tony would invite others to box with us: a law student with a pony tail, an Alaskan bush pilot, a free-range martial artist, a cheerful, aging club pro from Davenport, an alcoholic ex-Army boxer and street-corner evangel, among others. Sparring with total strangers whose skills and training and pent-up frustrations were waiting for release in the ring was also good for the soul, Tony declared. Tony the matchmaker.

One match Tony didn’t make, fortunately, was Glenn versus Norman Mailer. The topic came up one warm spring evening in 1976 at a pig roast on the farm of novelist Vance Bourjaily, just outside Iowa City. Vance was one of our mentors at the Workshop, always generous with the booze and pork and advice. His first novel, The End of My Life, based on his experiences as an infantryman in World War II, was published in 1947 to great acclaim. Critics ranked his novel up there with James Jones’ From Here to Eternity and Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. The three were suddenly the new trinity of bright young prospects. Of course, Tony, Glenn and I were determined to be the next new trinity of bright young prospects.

Vance had his doubts, which became clear as the night wore on and we waited for the pig to cook. Someone had miscalculated the amount of coal needed, and so we waited and drank Vance’s beer and whiskey. And as can happen when you have booze, writers and an uncooked pig all in one place at one time, the discussion turned to matters of manliness, at which point Vance vigorously declared that our generation of writers was a sorry lot of pussies. For starters, we hadn’t grown up in the Great Depression; plus we hadn’t fought in a great war to save civilization; and we didn’t fish in clear, cold mountain streams.

I took the high road, even drunk, and didn’t swing on my teacher. After all, Vance was supplying the booze. Glenn had less patience for the questioning of his manhood. So he did what any self-respecting, ferociously competitive young writer would do. He offered to fight Norman Mailer.

“He can pick the time and place,” Glenn said. “Mexican gloves.”

Why Mailer? Well, Vance was out, since one ought not to punch the guy with the grade book, and Jones was in ill health. That left Mailer. Besides, not a weekend went by that Mailer wasn’t in the news for punching someone in an expensive Manhattan restaurant. He even claimed to train for it. And his latest book, The Fight, about the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle,” had just come out. Mailer seemed to be in fighting trim, if a little long in the tooth.

“I could book that,” Vance said, thoughtfully. He handed Glenn another beer.

The next afternoon, after our heads had cleared a bit, it occurred to me that Glenn whupping up on an icon of American letters was probably not a good career move. Besides, what if, against all the laws of physical nature and common sense, Mailer won? “Impossible,” Glenn said. He had the confidence of a guy with a wicked left hook. “Sure,” I pressed, “but … what … if? You’d have to move to Bolivia and change your name.”

Later, I called Vance and told him the fight with Mailer was off. Vance had no idea what I was talking about. Nor could any of us remember what had become of the pig.