The Knockout Artist Essay - Critical Essays

Harry Crews

The Knockout Artist

When he was an uneducated eighteen-year-old from South Georgia, Eugene Biggs, the protagonist, discovered that he had an aptitude and enthusiasm for boxing. After winning his first thirteen fights, however, a string of knockouts ended his career. Taunted by his disappointed coach that he could knock himself out if he tried, Eugene discovered that not only was this literally true but also that people would pay to watch him do it. His humiliating career as a “knockout artist” was launched.

Now performing for kinky clients at parties, he gradually becomes enmeshed in the New Orleans underworld: His best friend Pete, also a former boxer, is a projectionist at a theater which shows “snuff” films; Pete’s girlfriend performs sex acts at a local club and is hooked on drugs. It is a sordid world which drains Eugene of his self-respect, and it gets worse when he finds out that his rich, sexy girlfriend is only using him as material for her Ph.D. dissertation. Finally, prompted by his affection for a young fighter he is training and his desire to prevent the boy from falling into the same trap, he decides to get out. Leaving his former life behind him, he faces an unknown future with quiet determination.

The most memorable aspect of this novel is the likable protagonist. Down to earth and sometimes brutal, Eugene is nevertheless capable of tender feeling; although experienced in the ways of the world, he remains somehow innocent. His basic decency and his loyalty to his friends give a breath of positive values to the tough world--unsentimentally portrayed by Crews--in which he finds himself.