Schulian vs. Fiction: A Draw

By Pete Ehrmann on December 1, 2015
Schulian vs. Fiction: A Draw
I was expecting something more uplifting and Heinzian from one of our classiest writers.

In his latest contribution to literature Schulian tackles a new genre — noir fiction — and battles it to a lively draw…

It’s not inconceivable that someday John Schulian will get a call from Canastota notifying him that he has joined keyboard masters W.C. Heinz, Hugh McIlvanney and Jimmy Cannon in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. To see why Schulian’s inclusion among these premier ring journalists of all time would be fitting, you need only get a copy of “Fighters, Writers and Other Sweet Scientists,” the superb 1983 compilation of columns and features he wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspaper outlets before Schulian decided to risk going as slug-nutty as some of his subjects by becoming a screenwriter and producer in Hollywood. A few years ago, he and the very lamented and also Hall-worthy George Kimball collaborated on “At the Fights,” an anthology of excellent boxing prose.

At best I am a nominal baseball fan, but Schulian’s “Twilight of the Long-Ball Gods,” a collection of his pieces about the National Pastime, has a prized place on my bookshelf. 

In his latest contribution to literature Schulian tackles a new genre — noir fiction — and battles it to a lively draw. His first novel, “A Better Goodbye” (Tyrus Books, 304 pages, $24.99 hardcover), doesn’t achieve the high standard of Schulian’s reportage, but thanks to his familiarity with boxing and showbiz it’s a hard punching page-turner that follows onetime rising boxer Nick Pafko into La-La Land’s sordid sex-for-pay industry.

The circumstances of Pafko’s divorce from the ring are somewhat clichéd, and frankly my sympathy for him was strained from the get-go and got more so as things went along. Matter of fact, there are few genuinely likable characters in the novel and lots of entertainingly hateful and pathetic ones, which I suppose is the norm in noir. But if Schulian is looking for someone to build a second novel around, I nominate Onus Dupree Sr., former major league baseball player and father of Nick Pafko’s worst enemy and opponent in the testosterone-drenched denouement.

The F-bombs abounding in Schulian’s dialogue discomfited me for the same reason I flinch when my stand-up comedian daughter drops them in her act: She’s too smart for that. She says she first heard that word from me. In my defense, at the time I was not performing on stage or at the keyboard, but dealing with an overflowing toilet. So, I guess, is Schulian.

“A Better Goodbye” doesn’t warrant a plunger and is far from schlock. I was just expecting something more uplifting and Heinzian (as in W.C.) from one of our classiest writers.

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  1. Bob 03:33am, 12/02/2015

    It is hard to imagine a better boxing (or baseball) writer than John Schulian, who happens to be my personal favorite. I’m not big on fiction, and I’m not big on F-bombs, especially by comedians or writers trying to add grit. I admire your honest assessment of Schulian’s latest work, and get the impression I might come to the same conclusion. I think I will pass on this book, but despite not being a baseball fan, might give that a try. There are few, if any, better columnists from the past 50 years.

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