Shadow-Box, winner of the Irish Times Literature Prize for Fiction, is Antonia Logue's debut novel. Shadow Box weaves together the lives of heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, modernist poet Mina Loy, and dilettante (con-man, art critic, boxer, poet) Arthur Cravan during the first half of the 20th century. This heady blend of adventure, romance, boxing tale, and memoir, takes the reader through Europe, the United States, and Latin America.
Cravan and Johnson actually fought in Spain during Johnson's period of exile from the United States. Loy and Cravan met in New York, where Loy was establishing herself as a poet and Cravan was dodging conscription during Wold War I. Cravan escaped to Mexico. Loy followed, and the two married. Johnson attended the wedding. He subsequently returned to the United States and was imprisoned, while Cravan disappeared in a boat off the coast of Guatemala. Loy finally returned to the United States, having lost contact with Johnson.
Nearly thirty years later, in January of 1946, Johnson writes to Loy. Loy responds, and both characters' pasts are re-opened in a series of letters. The short-lived but intense adventure/romance shared by Loy and Cravan is revisited, as are the lives of the two correspondents prior to and following their period of acquaintance.
As fiction based on a true story, Shadow-Box shrewdly zeroes in on the moment the three characters' documented adventures intersect. Here the process of writing fiction begins: scenes are re-imagined, intimate details arranged, conversations written into history. In fact, Logue admits to having fictionalized, firstly, the conversations between Loy and Cravan, and, secondly, some unspecified details of Johnson's private life. Though the interweaving of the historical with the fictitious is not something new, an informed reader will find herself wondering what actually happened and what did not. And if a reader were to investigate the actual histories of these characters, she may become aware of a serious problem.
There is a great deal of interesting material: Loy's acquaintance with the Italian futurists, her failed marriage to Stephen Haweis, the death of their child, Loy's flight to New York and involvement with the Modernists. Loy's brief, intense, and tragic relationship with the crooked rascal Cravan, and Cravan's swindles and drunken misdemeanors, form fascinating life-stories imbued with betrayal, adventure, love, and grief. The Jack Johnson story falls into an entirely different category, however. Both Loy and Cravan achieved minor distinction in their areas of endeavor. Johnson's exploits, on the other hand, are considered legendary.
Johnson broke boxing's color bar by winning the heavyweight title from a white fighter. Johnson showed irreverence and contempt for white authority by cursing at police officers, buying his way out of trouble, and verbally taunting the "great white hopes" he so skillfully knocked out. Johnson recklessly pursued white women. Prostitutes worked his famous "Club du Champion". He was a quarrelsome drinker prone to fits of violence against women. Johnson was a conspicuous consumer. He spoke five languages. Dressed in extravagant suits, gold tooth glittering, Johnson walked a pet leopard through Chicago streets while sipping champagne. Eccentricities and roguish conduct aside, Johnson's strength of character is truly remarkable. Prior to the Jim Jeffries fight, millions of dollars, hoards of people, and an angry media aligned themselves against Johnson. They taunted, caricaturized, threatened him with death, derided his skills¨in short, dedicated themselves to undermining him. Johnson did not waver. He vengefully battered and verbally abused Jim Jeffries for fifteen rounds:
Well, this was the American way and it was my way and Jim Jeffries would eat it for them. Every cut on his face was aimed for like a target shot, every bit of flesh beaten raw¨in front of them all I made Jim Jeffries as broken and derelict as a human being could be, every blow asking if he was liking it, if he wanted a hit with a left or a right, in his belly or his face, asking if it hurt enough, if I could help him walk into any more punchbag volleys. (Logue, p85)
The problem with Shadow-Box is not that it diminishes Johnson's story. His achievements are, after all, well documented and proven true. However, as when Johnson fought inferior opponents, Shadow-Box suffers from a narrative mismatch.
Many crucial episodes in Jack Johnson's life are noted but not explored. For instance, in the wake of Johnson's defeat of Jim Jeffries, celebrations, riots, and lynchings occurred. Several blacks were killed. Media and authorities directly blamed Johnson's victory for inciting racial unrest. Shadow-Box simply breezes over these significant events.
What impact did Johnson have on the way race relations were later approached? How did Johnson's conspicuous activities influence the stereotype of what Eldridge Cleaver calls "the supermasculine menial?" How did Johnson's intelligence and determination deflate the very same myth his sexual energy and activities inflated? What is Johnson's boxing legacy? How important was Jack Johnson within the larger framework of African-American history?
These are not extra-narrative considerations. Shadow-Box does bring to the foreground the Johnson story, and does give its readers an idea of Johnson's importance. However, Logue is faced with the difficulty of balancing Johnson's story with that of Loy and Cravan. Herein lies the problem: The lengthy passages Johnson narrates about preparing for fights, being in the ring, and being harassed by the authorities fit the novel's thematic structure. All three central figures were rebellious. In her personal life Loy rebelled against the traditional woman's role. Cravan, in his own minor, misguided way, opposed decorum and decency. Johnson, however, publicly fought an entire nation. Furthermore, Johnson's fight in Australia, Jack London's "great white hope" remark, Johnson's exile, Churchill's refusal to allow Johnson to fight a white man on British soil, underscore Johnson's near-international reputation and stature. Having brought this character in, the author is forced to limit the overall scope of her examination of the Johnson legend lest it eclipse the stories of Loy and Cravan.
While Johnson's perceptive letters relate his achievements and his tribulations, the same level of analysis isn't employed to gain understanding of how race and prejudice affected him personally. The brutality and humiliating treatment that accompany racism hardened Johnson, who re-enacted a similar kind of brutality within and without the ring. The restrictions imposed on blacks seemed to incite Johnson to extreme behaviour. Though clear on these key points, Shadow-Box does not explore further. Loy's and Cravan's characters are influenced and changed by decisions and new experiences. Johnson, by contrast, is fully-formed from the outset. He is a static character who isn't endowed with the kind of sensitivity to outside events Loy and Cravan possess. This renders the character of Johnson less interesting, since by comparison, it is Loy who becomes the great repository of intellect, compassion, insight, sensitivity, and intrigue. Shadow-Box entertains readers with the Johnson story while it moves readers with Loy's story, that is we are supposed to be entertained by Johnson while relating, as human beings, to Loy.
As a debut novel, Shadow-Box is impressive. Logue vividly recreates long-forgotten scenes and re-invigorates musty sensibilities. The boxing passages comprise some of the book's strongest moments¨they are brutal, calculated, and entirely believable. My complaint is that while Logue's skill at characterization is well applied in the depiction of Mina Loy, it is not as well in evidence in the person of Jack Johnson. ˛
Kaie Kellough is a poet and writer living in Montreal.