October 10, 2016
The King of White Collar Boxing
by David Lawrence
Rain Mountain Press, 2016
by Brennan Burnside
Reading David Lawrence’s memoir White Collar Boxing, I was reminded of something Mary Karr said about the genre: it isn’t about historical truth or objective facts, but about communicating “the shape of yourself.” Memoirs aren’t journalism. Rather, they are read to learn about, as Karr might say, the attitude of the writer’s soul. What unique filter does the writer have for reality? What is distilled that no other person could’ve quite communicated in the same way? Lawrence’s shape is a narrative at war with itself. Sentences clash in tone and style: an iconoclasm of privilege and destitution. A tension that seems to live deep within Lawrence, created in the subculture of uber-masculinity in a 1980s New York City that would give birth to his side-interests in boxing and rapping (check out his single “The Renegade Jew” on YouTube…not bad) as well as his eventual incarceration for money laundering.
Lawrence emerges from a seething base of rich white males struggling with the ennui and nihilistic tendencies of a maddening matrix of excess and entitlement. An executive in his mid-30s at a prestigious insurance firm in Manhattan, he loses himself in a nostalgia de la boue when he becomes frustrated with the limits that wealth has given to his interior life. A former hippie, he didn’t find the peace that the ‘60s promoted in a myriad of forms. Disillusionment with counterculture idealism evolves into a recalcitrant cynicism: “I am from the love generation that was supposed to save the world. Instead we failed to define it… We assumed that love was simple and that violence was ipso facto negative rather than the first step towards ending violence. We did not know that avoiding the responsibility of war could result in our pacifism killing millions of people in Cambodia and Vietnam… We didn’t understand that violence could be more curative of violence than passivity.” So goes the mission statement behind Lawrence’s long path to becoming a professional boxer in his mid-40s. He leaves the multi-million-dollar skyscrapers of Manhattan for Gleason’s Gym, a small but prestigious gym in Brooklyn with a definite blue-collar vibe (that Lawrence doesn’t hesitate to mention many times over). Gleason’s becomes his self-described “Sorbonne”, where Lawrence cultivates an inner life based on the catharsis of physical abuse.
White Collar Boxing is polemic. It does not dance around definitions: physical violence is holy. For Lawrence, it carries an unadulterated truth: “When I was sixteen I broke my hand against a concrete wall to show how tough I was. I smiled through the pain because I didn’t want to admit how much it hurt. There’s intimacy to suffering.” Fighting becomes a panacea for the culture of deceit and lies he participates in during his working life. While he fails morally in his professional life, prison is not a suitable enough punishment. He must file penance through the sacrifice of his body: i.e., the injuries he suffers in the ring. Boxing, once a hobby to release pent-up aggression, becomes a religion. Something bigger than him. It undoes false, imprisoning concepts of masculinity that entangle him in the financial culture of Wall Street. The survival instincts within the ring cleanse him of the crutches of materialism, humbling him to something greater than wealth. He utters koan-like wisdom in the brash tones of a prize fighter: “To me there was no such thing as contradictions. Opposites merely existed side by side. They didn’t clash.” An utterance born from as experience as much as a desired state of being. He needs to be more than the vanilla caricature of Madison Avenue that he feels that he (and fellow colleagues) have become. The fluid poetry of the boxing ring delivers rough edges and discordant harmony that, ironically, bring him fulfillment.
Likewise, the writing style of White Collar Boxing is an unbalanced, riotous, raucous Kuntlesroman that reads with the vulgar candor of an unschooled hooligan in one moment while embracing the raw beauty of a Bukowskian cadence in the next. It tumbles from the coarse discourse of uneducated youth to striking turns of phrase that encapsulate Lawrence’s education and background in verse (he’s published over 700 poems). There’s a roughness to it that carries the looseness of Outsider Art: a narrative of impulses and late night epiphanies completed by a seeming novitiate. At the same time, a deep insecurity runs through the writing, which Lawrence dodges with cheesy one-liners, speaking in the appropriated brusque of his fellow fighters or the noir discourse of Mickey Spillane. It’s easy to see this as a rookie faux pas, but I don’t accept that this is a mistake. Lawrence’s poetry is far too aware of form to have committed such an error. If he’s anything as a writer, it’s intentional. There is self-knowledge at root in otherwise vacuous braggadocios. A subtle layer of self-satire, an awareness of social position and a deeper concern with how to utilize his privilege properly. Although he may at times appear too self-conscious about his privilege and overtly attempt appropriation of black and Hispanic cultures as a form of supplementing what he feels is an emptiness within his own background, he simultaneously displays respect for those he imitates. The imitation is not without sincerity. There’s a mirthless honesty beneath the shade of appropriate rhetoric and lifestyle. Lawrence, after all, is attempting to live a life of contradictions. To, in his own words, write about “the nature of man.” Most specifically, himself.