Books: More butterfly than bee

Laura Thompson finds that a memoir of The Greatest pulls its punches
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The Independent Culture
The Tao of Muhammad Ali by Davis Miller, Vintage, pounds 7.99

What is a hero? One possible definition is that your hero is yourself turned outwards. The particular quality of courage, chutzpah, genius that you feel lies within is, in the hero, not just reflected but opened. What is hidden in you is sunlit in them.

Certainly this is how Davis Miller feels about Muhammad Ali. Throughout Miller's life, Ali has been his sunlit self, the self whose pallid skin gleams with "pecan beauty", whose desire to communicate with people is simplified into huge and virile gestures, whose triumphs and sufferings become transcendent. This is the relationship that Miller's book attempts to convey.

The book also tells the story of the actual friendship that developed between hero and worshipper. During the 1980s, Miller and his family lived near Ali's mother; one day, he knocks on Mrs Clay's door. The three chapters that follow - which describe the tentative bond between Miller and Ali, and the shambling, yet still-powerful figure that is the Ali of today - are by far the best in the book. One passage has Miller and Ali sparring in Mrs Clay's backyard: "I instinctively block and/or slide to the side of all three of Ali's punches and immediately feel guilty about it, like being 14 years old and knowing for, the first tine that you can beat your Dad at ping-pong."

The joke is still on Miller, however. Later, Ali shadow boxes around his mother's sitting room and creates the illusion that "he can still make fire appear in the air...I'd honestly thought that what he'd thrown in the yard was indicative of what he had left. But what he'd done was allow me to play; he'd wanted me to enjoy myself."

Miller returns to this idea that Muhammad All's greatest gift was - and remains - an ability to liberate the playfulness, the joyful child, in his audience. It is a terrific insight, convincingly conveyed. Far more often, however, Miller's subject eludes his authorial control. He is rightly insistent on the autonomy of Ali, recognising that even the "most famous man in the world" still has a life of his own that resists analysis. In a sense, that is the message of his book.

It is, however, a message that comes across in ways that Miller perhaps did not intend. His worshipful rendering of Ali, of every detail of his clothing, conversation and behaviour, surely did not wish so often to give the impression of a spoilt show-off, childishly obsessed with the power of his own legend.

The problem is that, however much Miller may insist on his desire to reveal that there is more to Muhammad Ali than the myth, the appeal of his book relies almost completely upon the fact of that myth. Within every page lies the belief that Muhammad Ali is The Greatest. Quite simply, those who do not subscribe to that belief will not subscribe to this book.

There is another problem with The Tao of Muhammad Ali, but this is not the fault of its author. One cannot blame Davis Miller for the fact that there have been, over the past five years or so, too many books published about sport, about Ali, and about the personal connection that writers feel with their subject. Nor is it his fault that, thanks to over-exposure in trendy men's magazines, his style bas become something of a cliche. One knows too well that scene in the tattered boxing gym, where the writer inhales the liniment and metamorphoses into Norman Mailer; too well, also, the scene which describes the death of a parent. One cannot doubt its sincerity, but this honesty reveals nothing but itself.

Yet this is a likeable book, occasionally penetrating, occasionally moving. That it would have had more power, had it been published ten years ago, is a rather sad indictment of the even greaterpower of literary fashion.