Thanks to the company he keeps—Jacqueline Onassis, Shirley MacLaine and other certifiably beautiful people—Pete Hamill has become something of a celebrity-by-association, popping up in the gossip columns with rather boring regularity. All that is O.K., but it tends to obscure the most important thing about Hamill: that he is a first-rate newspaperman, a skillful columnist (for the New York Daily News) and a novelist of considerable accomplishments, the most recent being Flesh and Blood (Random House, $8.95), a gritty, tough, sometimes lyrical book about boxing.
Like his earlier The Gift, a wonderfully sentimental Christmas story, Flesh and Blood has its roots in Brooklyn, where Hamill grew up and which he clearly regards as his spiritual home. Hamill is a direct descendant of that old and honorable school of street-wise New York journalism in which you write with a snarl on your face and a lump in your throat, and what's impressive about both of these novels is that he brings it off—he tells almost calculatedly hackneyed stories but imbues them with so much tenderness and humanity that they are somehow moving rather than maudlin.
Flesh and Blood is about Bobby Fallon, a muscular Brooklyn kid with a primeval urge for battle: "And then it happened. The thing, the scream from the belly, started coming up from inside me and a kind of craziness was on me." The urge lands him in prison, where he discovers boxing. He makes a career out of it after his release, under the gruff but careful tutelage of Gus Caputo, your basic nail-hard trainer with a heart of gold. His rise through the ranks is swift: as "Irish Bobby" he becomes a great white hope, and the novel moves inexorably toward his title bout against a black fighter who is cast in the Sonny Liston mold.
All of this is played out against the background of Fallon's excruciating personal struggles, the most bittersweet being his fiercely Oedipal love for his beautiful mother Kate and an introspective curiosity about his vanished father. And it all comes down to a conclusion that is hard on Fallon—not to mention the reader—but is indisputably apt.
Some readers may find Hamill's characters too obvious and his tone too cloying; I think he brings the people to life and in exactly the right style. And the boxing is terrific: tough, grainy, savvy, exuberant. Flesh and Blood is minor but very fine.