A New Voice in Fiction With a Mean Left Hook

HEADSHOT, by Rita Bullwinkel

It takes focus and discipline and a certain single-mindedness to become a good prize fighter. It takes those same qualities to write a book as fresh and strong and sinuous as “Headshot,” Rita Bullwinkel’s first novel, which is set in the world of young women’s boxing. To put this another way: Make room, American fiction, for a meaningful new voice.

The young women in “Headshot” have driven a long way, many of them, to Reno for a national 18-and-under championship. Some have slept in their cars. The novel follows eight of these boxers, fight by fight from the semifinals on, in chapters divided into short sections. The event is at Bob’s Boxing Palace, a grandiose name for a cheerless warehouse. Its ring looks secondhand, as if it were bartered for on Craigslist, the author writes.

To remark that Bullwinkel is observant about Reno and its casinos would be an understatement. “The people are like moths being lured to their own deaths, but instead of death all that awaits them are large, plastic, alcoholic slurpees,” she writes, an oddly incisive description of the American experience writ large. She is just as shrewd about the second-rate referees, one of whom resembles “a hated magistrate trying to give a speech to the masses during a time of war.” Whatever she turns her attention to glows under her scrutiny.

A tournament bracket turned on its side, Bullwinkel notices, resembles a family tree, though almost none of these boxers are related. Some are still girls, really. But without straining, the author locates commonalities. Few are from stable families. They are flowers that bloomed in muddy vases. Several were the kind of children “who were made to believe by other children that they may not deserve to be alive.” They have something to prove, even if only here in “the abyss of boxing.”

These women revel in their toned bodies, radiant with heat. A black eye is likened to war paint. A vein slithers like a baby snake under the skin. A left hook to the side makes sweat pop “like a shower of diamonds.” This is kinetic writing, but it would mean little without this novel’s undertow of human feeling and the rapt attention it pays to life’s bottom dogs, young women who are short on sophistication but long on motivation.

The tournament bracket provides this novel’s scaffolding, each chapter a bout. We witness the boxers’ different styles and their variegated interior monologues. One mutters and grunts through her fights, the way Erroll Garner did under his piano riffs. Others walk in with all guns blazing.

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