Edwin Newman is a bright and amusing fellow who has had a noteworthy career as a television correspondent for NBC News and who has written two successful books about the uses and abuses of the English language. Although those are worthy accomplishments, they don't qualify Newman to write fiction. For the embarrassing evidence, see his novel Sunday Punch (Houghton Mifflin, $9.95).
On the dust jacket the novel is billed as "light, dry, sparkling." Would you believe "leaden, soggy, flat"? For that most assuredly is the proper description of Sunday Punch, a silly little book that probably would never have seen the light of day were it not for its author's well-known name.
Sunday Punch has to do with a New York fight manager who discovers a gangling British boxer named Aubrey Philpott-Grimes; Aubrey is a fright to watch, but somehow-he keeps on winning. So the manager, Fogbound Franklin, brings the fighter to the Big Apple and starts him on the road to a championship bout.
Along the way Aubrey falls in love with a fading actress named Fredda Plantagenet (the novel is chock-full of funny-ha-ha names), becomes the pet guest of a Washington party-giver, Simco Savory, and is the recipient of the unwelcome attentions of Frankie Barbetta, a flashy gangster. The plot seems to have been inspired by some best-forgotten musical comedy of the '20s; hoods and molls and Congressmen and pugilists and reporters spin through its revolving doors in giddy, numbing succession.
The novel strains to be wry but succeeds mainly in being sophomoric, if not, indeed, freshmanic. As if those slapstick names weren't enough, we're treated to Fogbound's tired malapropisms ("Maybe we could go to court and get a decease and desist order") and Aubrey's disquisitions on global economics, because another of Newman's little jokes is that Aubrey is in the fight game to help rescue Britain's floundering economy—he's a case of patriotism gone bonkers.
The narrator is Joe Mercer, a sportswriter-turned-editorialist who offers Newman endless opportunities to spoof journalistic clichès ("Sirkowitz glowered menacingly from under scarred brows"). Every once in a while one of these comes off, but most just fall flat—exactly the way the novel does. Aubrey's Sunday punch has knocked Edwin Newman for a loop.