So says Michael Farris Smith during a conversation with Mountain Times: “I think somehow or other, all of my novels are going to be about characters scratching, crawling to get out of the hole they’ve dug themselves.”
And so, enter Jack Boucher, whose scratching and crawling appearance for his main event in “The Fighter” (Little, Brown and Company) offers Smith’s most gritty, most textured, most inspired novel yet.
A tale beautifully told, Smith is a working man’s poet when it comes to prose. The native Mississippian not only has an ear for Southern voices, but a gift to record those voices in concise and cutting strokes that resonate long after the last page is consumed.
Consumed, not read, because “The Fighter” — a story that channels Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien — is about so much more than a busted and aging cage fighter trying to make amends for a life of wasted opportunities.
It’s about you and me and the idea that if anybody, anywhere, gets one final round with redemption, there’s a price to pay — and the purse is the difference between living and dying.
To speak with Smith about “The Fighter,” Mountain Times caught up with the author by phone at his Mississippi home.
To speak with Smith in person, you won’t have to travel that far. The author has two North Carolina tour dates promoting his fourth novel: April 18 at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville and April 19 at Page 158 Books in Wake Forest.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tom Mayer: Jack Boucher, an aged and broken cage fighter, is a deeply textured, deeply flawed man who reminds me, in so many good ways, of Harry Morgan in Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not.” By design, by chance or am I off the mark?
Michael Farris Smith: I would say that that was maybe a happy accident to conjure a pretty famous character from literature, especially from someone I admire. The thing for me with Jack is that he snowballed pretty quickly for me when I had the idea of who he might be. I went very quickly from a guy who’s in a lot of physical pain to figuring out why, and deciding he was a fighter and then making him a cage fighter, and them making him an illegal cage fighter. Then, considering the effects of 20 years of bare-knuckle fighting and the lifestyle he may lead. The issues with brain injury and concussion and not being treated. From there going to, well, how is he treated. And, the opioid crisis pops into my head and he’s probably swallowing pain pills pretty often just to keep himself getting up and through the day. From that, I went right to the mental and emotional effects this kind of life would have had. He just became this very complex and tragic character for me almost immediately.
TM: In considering Jack, another character references, “the things he carried.” So, let me reference Tim O’Brien, who wrote that “a true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.”
Would “The Fighter” fit O’Brien’s definition of a “true war story.”
MFS: I think so. That’s such an astounding quote and I haven’t heard it in awhile. In Jack’s world, all bets are off and the issue of what’s moral is a moment-to-moment thing. I never want there to be anything romantic about my stories because that takes away from the reality of the people I’m writing about. To call it a war story is an interesting idea, but it’s also very fitting, too. Jack is at war with himself, and he’s been at war with the world he’s been dropped into since he was an infant. That’s a very interesting way to put it. War with yourself is usually the big one, anyway.
TM: Again, you’ve written a wonderfully layered novel about the possibility, at least, of redemption. What’s driving Boucher — indeed, what drives anyone — toward that need to try to make amends for a lifetime of bad choices and traitorous actions against the one you love most?
MFS: Maybe it’s just my belief in the human spirit. We all make so many mistakes in our lives. Trying to make atonement or turing to make peace is maybe not something that comes to us immediately. Sometimes it takes age, it takes experience. It takes a great amount of courage, sometimes, to fix the things you’ve broken. It may be an idea of God and forgiveness for some. It may be an idea of tranquility of mind for others. But, it’s in all of us, this notion of righting our wrongs or providing grace to ourselves in some way and those around us. We hurt people we love probably more so than anyone else. Those are the things you really have to go and repair. Those are the hardest things to do, and I feel like my characters are always trying to overcome things that they really want to make right.
TM: The literally colorful character of Annette — her body is a storybook of tattoos from head to toe — is one force pushing Jack toward that ideal of redeeming himself. She’s doing it at least partly for selfish reasons, but would you agree that the redemption she witnesses is not the redemption she thought she craved?
MFS: There are parallels between her and Jack. Jack seems to know what he’s after in this moment. Annette is lost, too, but she doesn’t even really know what she’s looking for. But, she’s always looking. Always looking for a sign, but of what? I’m not sure she even knows. But she’s hopeful and she’s searching. She comes to Jack with this notion of redemption but by the time we get to the last scene, she comes to realize that his world is very different from her’s. Redemption takes on a lot of different forms.
TM: I’m intrigued by Annette’s lifelong devotion to the “church of coincidence.” Is so much of life really a result of chance, or is that merely what happens when we fail to direct our own actions? Does that question make sense to you?
MFS: The question makes perfect sense. I have no idea what the answer may be. We all can look back at moments in our lives where something happened that we weren’t happy about. But, we can look back on it now and say, I’m glad that happened or I wouldn’t have met this person or I wouldn’t have been able to do this.
I’ve got a long list of those. My life has been this rambling, wandering series of events that just happened to occur in a way that led me to be the author, person, father and husband I am now. During those times I was heartbroken over those things that happened or didn’t understand why they happened, but now I’m thankful they happened. It is fate, or is it chance? I don’t know. In times of hardship, we look for signs to get us through. My favorite thing about Annette is this theology she’s devised for herself. Annette is a good example of someone who has that very much in the forefront of her consciousness.
TM: You write impossibly beautiful sentences and metaphors that echo seminal wordsmiths such as Ron Rash, David Joy and Cormac McCarthy. “Leaving the child in the dustcloud of abandonment” as you describe a very young Boucher being left on his own, or writing about the “invisible cloud of pain that draped and held him like some migrant soul in search of home,” are a couple of examples. I’m sure you’ve heard this before?
MFS: It’s an evolution of me as an artist, a writer, a person. It’s a combination of reading Cormac McCarthy and (William) Faulkner and Carson McCullers and everyone else whose had an impact on me. It’s an effect of the gospel music I listened to growing up. You know my dad was a preacher and the lyricism of that got into me and has something to do with the way the words come out. It’s nothing I’m conscious of when I sit down to work; it’s just trying to write the best sentence.
TM: Anything I missed you want to touch on today?
MFS: You know, a lot has been said about the nature of the book, and the violence and the darkness, but, I swear, it feels to me hopeful. I feel that everyone I’ve written is a very hopeful novel.
There’s something very personal to me about this novel that I haven’t been able to put my finger on. I think it’s the wandering nature of Jack and Annette and Maryann (Jack’s adoptive mother) and not knowing where you belong.
I moved around a lot as a kid. That restlessness was in me as a teenager and young adult. Those emotions really came out of this book in my relationship with the characters. I believe the relationship between Jack and Maryann may be the most tender I’ve ever written.
TM: And I can’t let you go without asking, “What’s next?”
MFS: Much like I wrote “The Fighter” while I was waiting on “Desperation Road” to come out, I happened to have an idea for something new. And so, I worked pretty hard to get a draft of that done before “The Fighter” was released. So, I’ll have something new and we should see it next year.