Book: The Polish Boxer
Author: Eduardo Halfon (translated by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead, and Anne McLean)
Published: October 2012 by Bellevue Literary Press
First line: “I was pacing among them, moving up and down between the rows of desks as if trying to find my way out of a labyrinth.”
Rating: 4.85/5 pirouettes, which may or may not mean anything to the Gypsies
(Advance reader copy provided by Bellevue Literary Press)
I would like to preface this review by saying that I am half in love with Eduardo Halfon now, and I’m eager to see his other work translated into English–like, tomorrow. I will buy them. I will.
I don’t know what I was expecting of The Polish Boxer. The offer to read it came by way of me pointing out the book Inukshuk to Amy, which I thought she might enjoy; Bellevue Literary Press said, hey, would you be interested in reading The Polish Boxer? Amy passed it along to me, and I’m so thankful for this bit of happenstance.
The blurb on the back of the book is a bit misleading. The summary describes it like it’s a book of unrelated stories–well, partially related because they share the same narrator–but gossamer threads run through the book, tying the stories together into a work that reads less like a book of short stories and more like a memoir by Anthony Bourdain mixed with tones of Kerouac. Halfon, the narrator of his own book, reads like a man with an unsettled past and a slow fire in his guts. He is a man who is easily haunted. He might be just a touch jaded.
It’s unclear how much of this work is fiction and how much is true. We know some of it is true–maybe all of it, there’s no disclaimer or classification that I can see. It doesn’t really matter. The Polish Boxer is gorgeous. When I read the title story, I was sitting at a coffee shop with my husband, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I got mist-eyed even though I was sitting next to a busy intersection where people could totally see me cry. (If I had been at home, I would have bawled.)
Halfon’s characters (and it feels weird to call them characters because I assume they are real people) all enchant the reader–Lía, who draws her orgasms; Juan Kalel, a brilliant poet confined by life in a tiny village; his grandfather, who always told his grandchildren that the number tattooed on his arm was his phone number, so he wouldn’t forget it–but the one that sticks with you hard is Milan Rakic, a half-Serbian half-Gypsy pianist who introduces himself to Eduardo in a bar one night. Rakic is the focus of three major stories in the collection (plus a small interlude), and with good reason: he’s captivating–or, at least, Halfon thinks he’s captivating, and shows us that side of Rakic. We fall down the rabbit hole with Halfon, who eventually finds himself in Belgrade, seeking out the wandering pianist in the book’s longest story, “The Pirouette”. We come away emotionally upturned, and that’s okay.
I still feel steeped in Halfon’s language and imagery. I want to wrap it around me like silk. I want to submerge myself like it’s a bath of warm cream, and maybe swim around a bit.
The Polish Boxer is sexy; it’s moving; it’s a little bit in the gutter, but it’s looking up at the stars. I don’t ever tell you that you must read a book, but I’m strongly urging you to pick up a copy of this one. It may become one of my all-time favorites.