Monday, November 11, 2013

Welcome to Gerard Brennan's Belfast octagon

Back in September, Eric Beetner and Terrence McCauley took part in a panel I moderated at Bouchercon 2013, and talk turned to novellas they had written for the Fight Card line, a series of boxing stories by new pulp and hard-boiled authors under the house name Jack Tunney.

What is the appeal to younger authors in the 21st century, I asked them, of writing stories set in the 1930's, '40s, and '50s, using a byline fashioned from the names of two athletes of the 1920s, about a sport that has not loomed large on the American scene since the 1970s?

Beetner dismissed the widespread belief that boxing is no longer popular, citing the rise of mixed martial arts (MMA). And lo, it was one of Fight Card's two MMA novellas that not only opened my eyes to the nuances of a sport that took shape only in 1993, but also demonstrated in its purest form the appeal of those old-style boxing stories.

The novella in question is Welcome to the Octagon, and the author is Gerard Brennan, a  longtime friend of Detectives Beyond Borders and an author with a growing list of credits for the stage and the page. That he sets Welcome to the Octagon in contemporary Belfast only emphasizes his fidelity to the old-time conventions of pulp boxing stories: the good guy, the gangster, the girl, the temptation, the tug of war between old and young.

The story has wry, self-deprecating humor:
"My heart wasn’t in it, but I had to live up to my nickname. The Rage! That was a joke. There and then I felt like The Disappointment. But I roared at the crowd and they roared back."
It has sharp social observation that reminds the reader he or she is no longer in New York or Los Angeles or a tumble-down precinct of some other American city:
"The Troubles had gone away. Except for the new age scum that was rising to the top. Maybe TapouT didn’t typify the real gangsters pulling the strings in Northern Ireland — we’d get to them quicker by looking at our politicians first — but he was a wannabe villain that slipped through the cracks of a mostly law-abiding society. A wannabe villain that would have been crushed by the RUC or the paramilitaries of old."
Brennan knows how to keep a story moving, planting narrative hooks toward the ends of his chapters and throwing in at least one character wrinkle unlikely to have shown up in an old-time boxing story. But what may have impressed me most is his engagement with MMA, a sport until now shoved somewhere back in my consciousness next to street luge, half-pipe, and bicycle motocross. MMA is compounded of styles and techniques taken from many fighting sports, and Welcome to the Octagon is full of observations about the resulting complexity and the demands it places on the fighters.

Welcome to the Octagon has heart, humor, and respectful engagement with its subject. What's not to like?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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34 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

I read this a few months ago and enjoyed it a lot. The eye moves through Brennan's prose as fast as you'll let it, and he touches all the bases without resorting to stereotypes.

I remember thinking as I read it what a good movie is in there.

November 11, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Setting aside the issue of writing, I would instead say that I find the whole MMA concept repugnant. MMA reminds me too much of gladiatorial carnage. And we know what happened to the culture that embraced that so-called sport.

November 11, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, have you read this essay by Gerard on the Fight Card Website? It has some relevance to your remark about stereotypes.

Gerard broke one stereotype when I first met him: He had shown me around Belfast, so I bought him lunch, and you know which beer he drank with his meal? A Carlsberg.

November 11, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: And he drank just one.

November 11, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., I know that culture bequeathed to its successors the political outlines of Western and Central Europe and North Africa and, from Diocletian's reforms, the administrative terminology and organization of the Roman Catholic Church, but your point is taken, of course.

I will say Gerard does poke some fun at the chest-pounding, heavy-matal-blaring aspects of MMA--not to mention what steroids do to people who abuse them.

November 11, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

I am probably one of the least likely person to read a boxing story, but if Gerard Brennan wrote it, I know I'm going to have to.

And not because he's twisting my arm or throwing me to the mat or anything like that.

November 12, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

You make a good point. A good writer can write about anything--even if it is an objectionable subject. Nabakov's Lolita comes to mind.

BTW, I am launching a new blogsite, which I hope you and others will visit in the future. I will be focusing on one of my favorite forms of detective and crime fiction: the short story. The site is in development now, but will be active soon:
http://descendantsofpoe.blogspot.com/

November 12, 2013  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Peter - Thank you so much for the kind words on WELCOME TO THE OCTAGON. And scanning down the last few posts, I can see that I really need to swing by here much more regularly. Those Hammett links distracted me from commenting earlier! All good, though. Gives me food for thought for my PhD project.

Dana and Seana, thank you too. BTW, Dana, I'm currently reading Grind Joint. Loving it. More on that ASAP.

R.T. I get your objection to the sport. You're not the only person who would describe it as objectionable, brutal, gladiatorial... the list goes on. I've heard it described as human cock fighting too. And they say the Irish are prone to exaggeration.

While there are elements of the sport I'm not altogether keen on (Peter has already pointed out how I've made some of those feelings clear in the novella) I do see it as a positive sport and one that serves a function in society. Some people are violent/feel the need to fight. I won't shy away from that fact, especially since my curiosity for violence and its motives must feed into my penchant for crime fiction. But I do think the octagon, cage or ring (depending on the breed of combat sport) provides a safe and legal way for some men and women to spend their aggression. I'd prefer to see these alpha-types embrace a sport (with tight rules and safety regulations) than find alternative, illegal ways to feed the adrenaline monster.

I feel as if martial arts helped give me direction in life and made me a nicer person. Later in life, joining a boxing club also provided many positives, including a way to burn off those lunch-time Carlsbergs.

So we'll agree to differ on the concept of combat sports, maybe?

Incidentally, I really like the name 'Descendants of Poe'. Best of luck with your site. Can't help thinking that a drunken Poe, down on his luck, might have lost a few dollars on bare knuckle boxing. That's just my overactive imagination, though!

Cheers

gb

November 12, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

R.T. let us know when it does go live and I'll put it in my blog roll, which means I'll be sure to read it.

Gerard, if they all turn out like you, we need have no fear of the sport.

November 12, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, the book contains plenty of arm-twisting, but since you're likely to read it while sitting or lying down, you should work on your ground game.

November 12, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: Thanks for the note. Write to me when the site is up, and I'll link to it on my blog roll. And yes, I'm no MMA fan, and I've never attended a boxing match, so it's a mark in Gerard's favor that I liked this story.

November 12, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerard, answer one question for me that the book does not: Why are MMA rings octagonal? I remember from my art history studies learning why baptismal fonts had eight sides (unfortunately the explanation slips my mind at the moment). Intentional early Christian or Carolingian references on the part of MMA's founders, perhaps?

November 12, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"I'd prefer to see these alpha-types embrace a sport (with tight rules and safety regulations) than find alternative, illegal ways to feed the adrenaline monster."

R.T., in re Gerard's remark about rules and safety, the story makes much of the contrast between regulated, sanctioned fights on the one hand, and the viscious, unlicensed bouts in which the protagonist is forced to engage. One could read the story in that respect as an old fashioned good-vs.-evil story, with licensed mixed martial arts being the good.

November 12, 2013  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Peter - I'd heard that the design was inspired by an obscure Chuck Norris movie but that sounded a little like a joke, so I had to Google it. The opening to this article tips its hat to the legend -- http://espn.go.com/mma/story/_/id/8515933/changing-shape-fighting

It goes on to report that a couple of guys who worked for TV have gone back and forth over who deserves the credit. But the general gist of the article suggests that it was the result of consideration for fighters, audience and cameramen. One additional nugget of trivia I can share is that the fence had to be heightened after a fighter called Tank Abbot attempted to throw his opponent out of it. I guess he was inspired by professional wrestling.

Another wee nugget; the octagon design is patented by UFC/Zuffa. Other organisations use a circle with the chain link (though a fair number of amateur orgs aren't put off by the patent).

Seana - Ach, thanks. :)

Cheers

gb

November 12, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, score one for the world leader in sports. So the octagonal shape is probably one of the only absolutely arbitrary significant features of any sport.

As for the design's being patented, I'm not surprised. Maybe some enterprising soul could develop a ring with eight curved sides and argue that such a shape is not a true octagon, just as the British 20 pence coin is not a true heptagon.

November 12, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

As for the octagon shape, I have nothing specific to add except the observation that "rings" and similar shapes have existed since the earliest times in history. Think of gladiators in the circus, bears in the bear-baiting pits, roosters in cock-fighting enclosures, etc. The underlying principle is simple: no opponent (or victim) may escape the entrapment and the brutality. As you can tell, I am no fan at all of blood-sports. BTW, a recent television news show featured children as young as six and seven participating in MMA cage fighting events. Now that is truly sick!

BTW, a question awaits you at the previously mentioned blog site, Descendants of Poe.

November 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha! Does that mean your new site us up?

That theory of rings is common sense, but eight is such a weird number, obviously a random decision or else one based on aesthetics (the latter appears to be the case, according to the information Gerard posted above).

On the Christian significance of the number eight, to which I referred above with tongue in cheek, a friend sends this along:

Eight-sided fonts recall the eighth day, the first day of resurrection. Saint Augustine writes about "the Day of the Lord, an everlasting eighth day." Saint Ambrose explains that a certain font is octagonal "because on the eighth day, by rising, Christ loosens the bondage of death and receives the dead from their graves."

November 13, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

Of course the word Octagon always makes me think of Santa Cruz's own Octagon Building, which was originally the Hall of Records, but more recently was a museum store and more recently a coffee shop. I had never stopped to think about why it was an octagon, but I just did a little research on why it is that shape. It was apparently designed in imitation of the octagonal 50 dollar gold piece minted in San Francisco in 1851. Odd idea, but I guess Santa Cruz was a little bit weird even way back when.

November 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And Barcelona's Eixample district is famous for its octagonal blocks and intersections.

November 13, 2013  
Blogger seana graham said...

That is cool, although to an American eye, Eixample can't help but look a bit misspelled.

November 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yes, and a delightful misspelling it would be. If I recall correctly, my hotel in Barcelona on a visit some years ago was in or very near that district. I remember what a novel sight those intersections were, almost as weird as as the Gaudi designs all over the city. Barcelona is a sight for jaded eyes, all right. (And, many centuries earlier, Catalonia's government was much closer to democracy than anything else at the time, I think. How come no one talks about Catalonia these days?)

November 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., your blog seems to have disappeared.

November 13, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

I have taken it down temporarily for revisions and other tweaking. There are some features in Blogger that are annoying, and others are puzzling. In another day or so, I should have it figured out enough to put things back online.

November 13, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aha. The apparent double e-mail notification may be my fault--apparent, because I posted a couple of comments, then deleted them almost immediately and reposted them with minor changes. So the modifications may not, in fact, have been doubles.

November 13, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MMA? Is that anything like this? Terrible, isn't it. The end of civilization as we know it.

November 14, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nah, the building is not octagonal, so that can't be an official, sanctioned MMA match. But the fight does include a bit of grappling at the beginning and at critical moments, along with the kicking and striking, so it's a bit like MMA, I suppose.

That's kind of interesting, isn't it? I was never a fighter or much of a fight fan growing up, but I knew there were three separate styles: Boxing, wrestling, and Asian martial arts that used the feet. MMA--quite apart from the heavy metal and the silly theatrics-- combines the three. That's noteworthy, I'd say.

November 14, 2013  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

I didn't watch the entire clip, because I may want to watch the movie some time (Donnie Yen fan -- though I'm more interested in his anti-aging secrets these days), but I wonder if Anon is suggesting that if the fight were contained in an octagonal 'cage' those two guys wouldn't have fallen off a building.

Just saying.

Also, Bruce Lee's American kung fu movie, Enter the Dragon, contains some very early MMA footage:

HTML don't fail me now. Eary MMA.

It's been around longer than people think.

gb

November 15, 2013  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

Early MMA, not eary... Cauliflower eary is appropriate, though.

gb

November 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Perhaps the apparently shoddy construction of the building lent that clip the apocalyptic note that anon detected. I watched Enter the Dragon last year, though the last time I remember noticing something unusual about a fighting style was the first time I watched a Muay Thai movie.

I wonder if the separation of fighting into styles that use the hands, that use the feet, that use grappling etc. is an exquisite hyper-refinenment and domestication of an inborn human desire to beat the crap out of one's opponent by any means available. Does any ancient fighting style combine all methods of striking and grappling, in the manner of MMA?

November 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Because that combining of everything into one powerful, efficient package seems like such an American thing.

November 15, 2013  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

I really have missed too many of your posts, Peter. I loved Ong Bak, and the follow up movie (which is unrelated but has an almost identical plot -- swap Buddha head for a living elephant) Warrior King. Muay Thai is also a very popular choice of striking style in MMA, but not the only one. Boxers (who can check kicks), brawlers and karate experts still have their place in the sport, as long as they have a wrestling or jiu jitsu game. We should talk movies and martial arts next time we meet. I'll bore you senseless in five minutes. Korean, Thai, Chinese cinema... I wish I had more time to watch them all. Last Korean movie I watched was R Point, military horror flick. Super creepy.

You could argue that Japanese Jiu Jitsu (as opposed to the sport/art that was evolved in Brazil) incorporates striking and grappling, but it's mostly for self defence purposes. Vale Tudo (basically the Japanese term for MMA) was taught in Northern Ireland 10 to 15 years ago, although karate and kung fu were more popular (many street fighters who enjoy a pint and a punch at the weekend in my neck of the woods still see hitting a man when he's down as ungentlemanly -- a result of our boxing culture, I think). But I assume those Vale Tudo clubs, where they still exist, have been rebranded as mixed martial arts. If it is an American thing, as usual, Ireland is just a few steps behind in fanaticism.

Check out Conor McGregor on YouTube some time. He's the latest and greatest Irish fighter to take the UFC octagon by storm.

gb

November 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And don't forget Ong Bak 3. I've seen all three. Beautiful photography of Buddhas throughout, and the finest stunt work I have ever seen involving elephants.

The last Korean movie I watched was a heist comedy called Once Upon a Time, set during the Japanese occupation, believe it or not.

I first read the term Vale Tudo in your book. I know a bit of Portuguese, and, as near as I can make out, vale tudo means anything goes. I got a kick out of this, and it gave me an idea of what the fighting style must be like.

November 15, 2013  
Blogger Gerard Brennan said...

As they say in the country, you can't teach your granny to suck eggs. Should have known you'd know all that.

The stunt work IS incredible in those films. I believe the director and fight choreographer are sadists.

Have a great weekend, sir! If you get the chance to watch UFC 167 tomorrow, it'd be a powerful introduction. Great fight card. The main event may register on the Richter scale. Unfortunately it's pay-per-view in the States.

gb

November 15, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Has every granny sucked eggs?

It's partly a fluke that I got to like martial arts movies. Netflix's selection of movies for streaming is poor, so I turned to martial arts movies and generally liked them, except for one Bruce Lee movie whose bad dubbing into bad English made it unwatchable.

And, if not this weekend, maybe I will will look for some MMA to watch. Thanks.

November 15, 2013  

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