Okay, so Fight Scenes by Greg Bottoms was not my favorite book. I’m not quite sure if I can even explain it, but I think ultimately it comes down to the fact that the writing was too thin for my taste and though the book embraced realism, some things seemed contrived to me. What can I admire about the writing? The use of but not over use of pop-culture reference to ground this story in a particular time and the successful threading of a very important theme, the somewhat intentional repression of the emotional lives of boys in “Big July 4th Sale—Buy American” American, a phrase that occurs twice in the story, once in the beginning, once near the end.
Pop culture references were not overdone, but they were there as a continual reminder that this was one year—1983—in the lives of two boys. MTV, my little ponies, 7-Eleven, Metallica, “Punk is over…”(23). These two boys, inundated by morally questionable media like when they are listening to the mom’s girlfriend’s stepson’s stepbrother’s satanic music, are at a loss for role models in their lives. They are boys in need, as the writer terms “at risk”. I’ve had writers at writer’s groups scratch out all direct references to pop culture saying that unless you have permission, you can’t put it in, as if it were some kind of copyright infringement. There are some stories that need this context and I’ve always thought that sounded like bologna, but since I haven’t until recently read a lot of contemporary fiction, I wondered if there was some truth to this new “rule” of fiction. It’s nice to see that, as I suspected, there are few “rules, though there are a lot of people out there trying to pin them down.
Bottoms successfully portrayed how the emotional lives of boys are stifled through this story of him and his friend over one summer and shows how that can happen in different ways. The narrator seems to come from a more stable family that values education and yet his father is too busy to get involved in his life in any other capacity than to scold or direct him and Mark’s dad who is crude and permissive: “He was a great dad, I thought for a time: the opposite my own, who was serious and busy, who wondered where I was while he was at work and told me when to be at home, who often asked me what he smelled on my breath” (10). The phrase thought for a time gets at the reality that ultimately the observant, sensitive narrator had to notice how the opposite was just as stifling, how Mark’s dad’s headlocks and urgings to be more manly were not so good after all, left him just as lonely.
His bare, realistic style is mostly successful. I felt like the writer, for the most part, was just trying to write things down as they happened, even when they were things he should be ashamed of, like participating in the exploitation of the slow boy who exposes his penis to the good girl on the playground because of their urging and plotting and insecurity. A couple things I felt were planted. Mark’s sneaking into his mother’s house to write the love poem across the photo on the fridge and the first meeting with Hazel, who behaves like a perfectly damaged, cruel girl whose daddy complex is too obvious, making it less believable. Maybe if she just wanted her dad to find her dead in the flowers, or just show boys his erotic magazines, but there are even more references to daddy than that.
What else? I liked how the dialogue was as crude and unfiltered as the characters, “ That bitch Sissy is a tease” (31). I liked that Hazel and her sister talked crude too. In my own experience as a twelve year old “at risk” kid, there was a whole lot of experimenting with ideas and language that doesn’t often make it onto the page because by then we’ve refined our language, become writers who like subtlety and fresh words. It’s too easy for our writing to become too clean, too perfect.