Thursday, September 5, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#11

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#11. "The Big Blow"

At fifty pages, the narrative pushes the limits of the Countdown's
"short fiction" criterion, but that's about the only drawback to this 1997 Stoker Award-winner (collected in Mad Dog Summer and Other Stories).  "The Big Blow" lands thunderously from its very first paragraph:
On an afternoon hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock, John McBride, six-foot one-and-a-half inches, 220 pounds, ham handed, built like a wild boar and of similar disposition, arrived by ferry from mainland Texas to Galveston Island, a six-gun under his coat and a razor in his shoe.
A lewd and brutish pugilist, McBride makes Jake LaMotta look like Little Miss Muffet.  He's the type of fighter who finds his sparring partners by inciting and then stomping ruffians down by the docks, and who (prior to his more official matches) loads his boxing glove with a razor blade.  McBride is hired muscle from Chicago brought in by the chagrined gentleman of the Galveston Sporting Club to administer a retaliatory battering to Jack Johnson, who defeated the Club's white champion.

Employing the real-life prizefighter Johnson as its protagonist, Lansdale's fiction confronts the history of violent American racism.
Johnson (the son of an ex-slave who was "made to fight for white mens like he was some kinda fightin' rooster") has himself been coerced to participate in degrading Battle Royales.  His upcoming bout against McBride is born of bias (the Sporting Club considers Johnson's in-ring success a besmirching of white supremacy) and does not promise to be an honorable contest (McBride stands to earn a $500 bonus if he beats Johnson to death).  Lansdale scripts an even more ignominious motive: Ronald Beems, one of the heads of the Sporting Club, wants Johnson killed off because he fears that his own secret homosexual lust will eventually lead him to proposition the black man.

A meteorological event forms the second historical backdrop to the tale: the great hurricane of September 1900 that leveled Galveston.
The notorious storm gives Lansdale ample opportunity to demonstrate his own writerly might.  He describes skies "the color of gangrene," waves that crash "like a monstrous, wet flyswatter"; the devastated city is transformed into "a wet mulch of bloated bodies--humans, dogs, mules, and horses--and mashed lumber."

The apocalyptic squall causes the epic battle between Johnson and McBride to spill out of the squared circle and into the flooded streets of Galveston.  Still, it's a surprising act of climactic collab-oration between the two combatants that proves most forceful here.  All told, "The Big Blow" is a literary TKO, a story that leaves the reader dazed with wonderment.

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