Books: Punch-drunk and disorderly

A Hurting Business by Thomas Healy, Picador, pounds 14.99 On The Ropes: Boxing as a Way of Life by Geoffrey Beattie, Gollancz, pounds 16.99; Gordon Burn steps into the ring with a laconic memoirist and a slumming professor
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The Independent Culture
Ben Watt of the pop group Everything But The Girl once wrote a song called "Boxing and Pop Music", whose lyric summed up the appeal that "the sweet science of bruising" has traditionally had for aspiring low- lifes of all backgrounds and ages, and all neurotic boy-outsiders: "Lying in bed on a weekday night, listening to the title fight, from a town the radio said was Atlantic City. Branches brush the windows, the hour is early morning, and Frankie's beating hell out of the champion."

Keening, nostalgic, poetic and yet "manly", it is the kind of song that would find favour with Thomas Healy, a fight fan who, like all fight fans, has a romantic streak as broad as Sauchiehall Street running through him. In 1975, for instance, when he is out of work, demoralised and still trying to find his form as a writer, Healy borrows pounds 15 and trudges through the dark and rain to see Mohammad Ali's third fight against Joe Frazier - "The Thriller in Manila" - in a cinema in the middle of Glasgow. "I had no money for a taxi fare, much less a hefty bet... And my shoes were leaking, letting in. You could hear the squelch each step I took, as if I were walking through a puddle."

Healy was born in 1944. Ali is two years older. In 1965, Healy and his mother were the last tenants living in their close in the Gorbals; it was due for demolition, the water had been cut off, the winos had moved in, and the Ali-Liston return fight was shown live on television. "In the kitchen. A coal fire. It caught against the windowpane, and my mother sat up with me. In her nightgown. About three in the morning." In September 1966, Healy travelled to Frankfurt to see Ali vs Mildenberger. Two months later he was in the Glasgow Odeon watching Ali against a fighter called Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams. "I was sat next to a guy I knew. He was a big-time hood. Very dangerous. Not a man you would want to know."

Joyce Carol Oates once proposed that, far from boxing being a metaphor for life, life is a metaphor for boxing - "for one of those bouts that go on and on, round following round... again the bell and again you and your opponent so evenly matched it's impossible not to see that your opponent is you."

Thomas Healy's has not been an uneventful life. A Hurting Business opens with him travelling on a train from Glasgow to Manchester; he has been drunk for several days; he has broken his hand in a pub brawl - "My opponent... had done time, some years for murder." Shades of "Sammy" Samuels, the blinded ex-con in James Kelman's Booker- winner How Late It Was, How Late. (And particularly in the non-boxing, autobiographical/confessional sections of A Hurting Business, Healy's writing will take comparison with Kelman and the best of the other Scottish brutal realists.)

But sometimes over-programmatically - a writer sticking too anxiously to his brief - Healy measures out his life in world heavyweight champions, to the point where the reader has some sympathy with the girlfriend who asks him why he doesn't go and live with Joe Frazier.

The inevitability of one champion succeeding another gave coherence and pattern to an otherwise drifting life. After Ali, though, and the advent of cable and pay-per-view, the titles in all boxing weight divisions proliferated. Not surprisingly, Healy looks back to the Ali years for his bearings: "We grow old, and I tracked my time, the stages of my life, with the career of Ali."

The most meaningful relationship in Healy's life seems to have been with a Dobermann called Martin, his working partner in Dobermann Securities. "I had had Martin since Larry Holmes, when Holmes was champion in April of 1983." Riddick Bowe is the champion on the October night, 10 years later, when Healy takes Martin to the vet to be destroyed. There is something eroticized and touching (something Ackerley-like) in his relationship with the dog. Interestingly, a number of the young comers and old punchies in the American writer Thom Jones's first collection of stories, The Pugilist at Rest, drew solace from the dumb company of Staffordshire terriers and boxer dogs.

Ring Lardner discovered the energising qualities of rough vernacular language in the Twenties, and there are strong echoes in both Jones and Healy, of Lardner's "uneducated", uncomprehending pug narrators.

Authenticity of language is something you might expect to find in On The Ropes, which largely consists of interviews with street flotsam and near-delinquents, the gym rats and chancers and "characters" - Mick "The Bomb" Mills, Ricky "The Brick" Stackhouse - of Brandan Ingle's fisticuffs academy in Sheffield. Unfortunately, Geoff "The Prof" Beattie (he is Professor of psychology at Manchester University) proves to be an easy touch, whether it's buying the blarney or a bit of "snide" Armani in a nightclub toilet.

Ring Lardner's best-known story, "Champion", still has more to tell us about sporting heroes than Gavin Evans's Prince of the Ring (Robson), 280 pages chronicling the wit and wisdom of Prince Naseem Hamed, the champion known as "Naz".