Budd Schulberg was a formidable writer who inhabited the worlds of fiction, screenwriting and sports journalism. His 1947 novel, The Harder They Fall, remains the definitive account of corruption in boxing induced by mafia influence.
When I read it, I was genuinely chilled by the depiction of the mob. Characters of the sort I encountered in Schulberg's fictionalised account are not ones I would want to do business with in real life. Still, realist novels are usually based on some slice of authenticity and I naively told myself that Schulberg had exploited and embellished a seedy environment for his own literary interests.
Surely the double dealing, back stabbing, match fixing, rumors, ghoulish behavior and general corrosiveness beneath the glamor of boxing had a degree of fantasy to it? The answer was and remains no.
The impression that The Harder They Fall made on me has been extended by Adeyinka Makinde's sterling biography of the tragic Frankie DePaula, a Jersey City native who rose to prominence as a boxer in the 1960s. Makinde writes in elegant yet precise prose that gives the reader the right amount of information to digest as he works through information packed pages.
What is even more commendable, however, is the amount of source material Makinde has compiled. A brief reading of the sources will reveal a range of newspapers, books, legal records and people the author has had to consult in order to pin down his man.
Furthermore, his research is so thorough and writing so tight that Makinde manages to recreate the particular atmosphere, which existed in Jersey City of the time as he approaches boxing as a distinctive subculture with its own rules, settings and idiosyncrasies. In this sense, he is like A.J. Liebling who was able to establish richness in his reportage about the sport by going beyond the drama of the ring where he digressed on such matters as trainers, sparring partners and made metaphorical connections between boxing and things which do not have much to do with it.
Nevertheless, for all of the fleshing out of the background context, Makinde is skilful enough to keep Frankie DePaula in focus and at the centre of the story. What transpires in the biography makes for compelling yet also very disturbing reading.
Makinde begins the story where it ends, DePaula being shot up on the morning of the 14 May 1970 by two gentlemen he knew from his criminal leanings. He then discusses DePaula's Italian ancestry and the broader political, social and economic trends which evolved in New Jersey before DePaula was born on 4 July 1939. Political corruption and social violence were part of DePaula's childhood but so was a strong identity with where he was born.
DePaula was a restless person who could not avoid trouble. Makinde says, "Between the ages of 14 and 21. Frankie's life was a continuum of many referrals to the Parental Home and later, to adult prisons." DePaula had been a terrific street fighter from his youth, regularly got into brawls and possessed a mean temper. He was also a philanderer and bully.
However, Makinde is not blind to DePaula's infectious charisma, endearing stupidity, kindness to those he considered his friends and his generosity towards others in his community. He was, according to those who knew him, fond of children. Part of the excellence of Makinde's portrayal of DePaula is his balanced approach that is tough-minded but fair.
Makinde narrates DePaula's life but does not intrude on the assessments of DePaula's character by those who knew him. Therefore, readers are exposed to all the different sides of the argument regarding how responsible DePaula should be for what happened to him.
The pattern of misbehaviour hampered DePaula's career as he never focused on his profession in the way he should have. Nonetheless, his athletic gifts, ruggedness, tremendous punching power, handsome features and Italian-American heritage all made him exciting to watch and immensely popular among fight fans. He was enough of a name for Frank Sinatra to be at ringside for a number of his bouts.
His original manager, Patty Amato, was mysteriously electrocuted in 1967 and was replaced by Gary Garafola, a man who was in charge of the popular nightclub Rag Doll and had connections with the higher echelons of organized crime. Garafola had the ability to get DePaula to fight and be a headline act at Madison Square Garden where he thrilled fight fans.
His two biggest encounters were with the legendary Dick Tiger and Bob Foster at the end of the 1960s. His fight with Dick Tiger was nominated as Ring Magazine Fight of the Year in 1968. Naturally, those who were managing and manipulating DePaula's life and career were smart enough to know that he was a wise investment to do their dirty work such as debt collection and hit designated people inside and outside the ring.
The ending of the DePaula is horrifying as the murder attempt on him did not kill him straight away. He disintegrated for four months after the incident in hospital and was bound to be paralysed for the rest of his life if he lived. Consequently, as DePaula lost the will to live, his brother suffocated him to death with a pillow.
The subsequent trial attempting to apprehend those responsible was a messy affair and unsurprisingly turned up no convictions. Makinde's ability to recreate the court proceedings and make them exhilarating is splendid. Who knew that courtroom proceedings could be so dramatic? I felt as if I was a member of the jury at the proceedings, which brings us to the challenge of Makinde's book for boxing aficionados. These come on two fronts and are interconnected.
Firstly, there is so much general brutality, mean spiritedness and tragedy in DePaula's self-destructiveness that I was left feeling guilty for being a boxing fan. How much complicity does the audience have in the downfall of the protagonist they are watching? Secondly, how much sympathy should we have for DePaula as an individual?
I found it hard to feel sorry for the man as he continually made silly decisions. Conversely, Makinde makes a compelling case for the innate characteristics which were exacerbated by the environment he was in. The jury, a far as I can witness, is out on these two questions.
The only part of the tale that is painted in black and white is the alluring yet evil presence of the mafia, which escapes without a price exacted on its activities. Then again, there is the phrase, "We are crime and crime don't pay." Bear that in mind when you read this magnificent but disturbing tale, which transmits this message brilliantly of what happens to people like DePaula who get themselves into a hole and don't stop digging.
(c) Michael Kilimes (2010)