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Boyd, Jerry 1930-2002

BOYD, Jerry 1930-2002

(F. X. Toole)

PERSONAL:

Born 1930, in Long Beach, CA; died of complications following heart surgery September 2, 2002, in Torrance, CA; married and divorced three times; children: Erin, Ethan, Gannon. Education: Studied drama at Los Angeles City College.

CAREER:

Writer; boxer and boxing trainer. Also worked as a bartender, longshoreman, private detective, teamster, actor, and bullfighter. Military service: Served in U.S. Naval Reserves in early 1950s.

WRITINGS:

(Under pseudonmy F. X. Toole) Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner, HarperCollins/Ecco Press (New York, NY), 2000.

Contributor of short fiction to periodicals, including Zyzzyva.

SIDELIGHTS:

Though he had written novels, plays, screenplays, and short stories throughout his adult life, boxing trainer Jerry Boyd did not achieve literary success until age sixty-nine, when his first book was published to rave reviews. Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner, published under Boyd's pseudonym F. X. Toole, presents five short stories and a novella that explore the often seedy world of boxing. The book, according to New York Times writer Richard Sandomir, "is inhabited by cynical and sentimental trainers, heroic boxers and slimy promoters" and is essentially "about love—a love of pure boxing, a love between boxers and cornermen, and a love among cornermen—conveyed in gentle, graphic and occasionally violent terms."

Reviewers of Rope Burns expressed admiration for Boyd's literary skill, insight, and compassion. Boyd "writes like Sugar Ray Robinson fought: silky smooth but with startling power," commented Booklist reviewer Wes Lukowsky. The pseudonymous author "is a natural," observed a contributor to Publishers Weekly, going on to praise Boyd's "encyclopedic and utterly persuasive" knowledge of the boxing world and his depiction of "mythically heroic … but convincing archetypes." And Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Gene Collier hailed Rope Burns as nothing less than "a miracle."

Indeed, Boyd's hard-won success as a writer suggested something of the miraculous. "I've failed at everything," he told Sandomir in a phone interview. "I failed with every woman, I failed as a father, I failed as a writer.… I wrote, but I wasn't a writer." Boyd received no formal literary training, learning how to write simply by reading. He grew up poor in Gardenia, California, where as a teenager he worked shining shoes and in gambling clubs. He tried acting in high school and studied drama at Los Angeles City College before joining the U.S. Navy Reserves. Stationed in Brooklyn, New York in the early 1950s, Boyd continued his theater training with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan. But he soon realized that he was not cut out to be an actor. Inspired by the stories of Ernest Hemingway, Boyd made his way to Mexico, where he enjoyed a brief stint as a bullfighter. He later returned to California, working as a bartender and at other odd jobs.

In the late 1970s, when he was nearly fifty years old, Boyd began training to become a boxer. He enjoyed life in the ring, but eventually stopped fighting to focus on training other boxers. Throughout these years, he continued to write, amassing large piles of rejection slips but keeping at it nonetheless. Finally, in the 1980s, he decided to stop writing entirely. Still, "I kept writing in my head," he admitted to Sandomir. A health crisis in 1988 prompted Boyd to return to literature. Recovering from complications after heart surgery, he suddenly realized that he wanted to write again. When he suffered a heart attack in 1996, he explained to Sandomir, "I said if I'm going to die, I'm going to finish the novel" that he had been rewriting.

Boyd's perseverance paid off when a story he submitted to the literary magazine Zyzzyva was published in 1999. "My fondest dream was to get published in a literary magazine," he told Sandomir. "The odds against me being published and talking to you about it are greater than the odds against the existence of God." But this achievement was only the first step toward even greater success. Literary agent Nat Sobel read the story and was so impressed that he offered to represent Boyd; soon, Ecco Press published Rope Burns. As Ecco editorial director Daniel Halpern told Los Angeles Times writer Dennis McLellan, "The style was so unpretentious, so clean, so muscular, and the stories were so clear in their intent. They have … subject matter that feels very lived in. And the characters just exploded off the page."

Rope Burns earned Boyd the admiration of established writers, including James Ellroy and Joyce Carol Oates. McLellan reported that Ellroy called the book "the best boxing short fiction ever written." In an interview with Sandomir, Oates called Boyd "a born storyteller who uses the language of the ring." Many critics especially admired the story "Million $$$ Baby," which a Publishers Weekly contributor described as a "lacerating account of a courageous, deeply endearing hillbilly woman fighter and her sad fate." The story "Black Jew" explores the issue of race; "Fightin in Philly" deals with the theme of fighters' special code of behavior.

Some critics felt that the collection's title story, the novella Rope Burns, did not measure up to the high standards of the book's shorter pieces. Allan Barra in New York Times Book Review felt that Boyd's emotional intensity "seems forced" in this piece and fails to be fully resolved. Washington Post Book World reviewer Jabari Asim, however, considered this "devastating saga" to be best in the collection. Noting that Boyd "knows just when to drop a plot-turning disclosure, maintains a smooth rhythm throughout and wisely exits each tale before risking the loss of his readers' sympathies," Asim concluded that "You needn't love boxing—or even care for it—to appreciate Toole's highly accomplished debut."

At the time of his death in 2002, Boyd had almost completed work on a novel, tentatively titled Pound for Pound.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, August, 2000, Wes Lukowsky, review of Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner, p. 2117.

Entertainment Weekly, October 6, 2000, Karen Valby, review of Rope Burns, p. 80.

Library Journal, September 15, 2000, Nathan Ward, review of Rope Burns, p. 117.

Los Angeles Times, Robert Ito, review of Rope Burns, p. 34.

New York Times, August 22, 2000, Richard Sandomir, "A Writer Rolls with the Punches," pp. E1, E3.

New York Times Book Review, September 10, 2000, Allen Barra, review of Rope Burns, p. 12.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 17, 2000, Gene Collier, "Boxing Collection Reveals New Lord of the Ring."

Publishers Weekly, July 10, 2000, review of Rope Burns, p. 40; August 28, 2000, Robert Dahlin, "The First Fiction Scene," p. S11.

Sports Illustrated, November 27, 2000, Charles Hirshberg, review of Rope Burns, p. R14.

Washington Post Book World, October 22, 2000, Jabari Asim, review of Rope Burns, p. 8.

OBITUARIES

PERIODICALS

Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2002, p. B12.

New York Times, September 15, 2002, p. A25.*

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