Ring Cycle

 

Finishing Skills

By Robert Gillespie
 

Inman Writes from Experience

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Like Heidi Whitehill, Sarah K. Inman"s pro fighter in Finishing Skills, Inman boxed professionally—once. "That was enough for me to realize that it wasn"t for me. Because it really isn"t good for your brain,— she said recently. "Heidi has a much better career as a boxer than I ever did. In that way Finishing Skills is kind of a fantasy. Maybe if I"d won that first fight I wouldn"t have written the book.—

Inman doesn"t even spar these days, though she does keep her eye on "the human body and what it can do, what sort of punishment it can deal out and take.— Years before she entered the ring, one of her four brothers introduced her to the martial arts. In 1997, after earning an M.A. in English from the creative writing program at New York University, Inman and her now-husband, Joe Longo, moved to New Orleans, where she and several other women took up kickboxing and "we all kind of got into testing our skills.—

Inman tutored students in the business school at Tulane, taught at other schools around the city, and since 2001 has taught English and chaired the department of English and humanities at Delgado Community College, West Bank campus. To stay in shape she turned her hand to circus art with a trapeze troupe a couple of years ago. She still works out on the heavy bag.

Some of the best writing is done by sports writers, Inman believes, because they"re passionate about their field. Though she says much of Finishing Skills is made up (excepting real sites, some swept away by Hurricane Katrina), the boxing scenes are sure-fire authentic. Her main concern: that when Teddy Atlas, one of boxing"s greatest trainers and a commentator on ESPN2"s Friday Night Fights, reads the novel, "he finds the fight scenes credible.—
45%#Heidi Whitehill takes a ton of hits: bloody nose, mouse under the eye, facial discoloration, headaches, painful ribs. People in a bar think the guy she's with is beating on her. Sarah K. Inman's novel comes out swinging in a hot new genre"women's professional boxing.

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Hitting the heavy bag, jumping rope, doing sit-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, running in the New Orleans heat, shadowboxing, sparring, learning the one-four-three-two combination: Heidi's first-person narrative is bare-knuckled about what it takes to make it in the tough fight game. She wants to win but knows "why aging boxers shake, their brains rattling like bags of broken crackers." She pulls no punches about her warring spirit, her joy at bloodying an opponent, doing dope, sleeping around ("It was like doing extra sets of push-ups"). "For me, boxing was a lower vibration, not a heady, sporty science, but something I felt in my loins."

Heidi bonds with other fighters and her ex-addict, ex-con trainer as she drifts away from family, college roommate, bass guitarist boyfriend, and post-M.B.A. career as an executive account rep. If she threw in the towel on the ring, "I'd be cheating, not testing my skills, pushing myself to natural limits."

A white woman transplanted from Maine to a largely black community, Heidi takes in the city's y'all drawl and down-at-the heel districts as she learns to box. She does her pre-fight pep-up to the music of black women rappers, fascinated by their sounds and unique names. She relishes the ambiance of swampy, toxic smells, coffee shops, and wrought-iron balconies.

Finishing Skills isn't an out-and-out knockout. One more round of editing could've caught misprints and helped smooth some transitions. Inman's first novel, like her bold fighter, is a winner by decision.
 
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