Literature to Save Us
by Michael Winkler
Puncher and Wattmann
Sometimes, or often, after completing a piece of writing, I am struck by the feeling that I will never write again, that the energy required to produce what might be called literature is so great that to even think about re-entering those remembered or misremembered or imaginary worlds is enough to make us keel over and die. This is, of course, dramatic, childish, preposterous – no one forces us to write, quite the opposite – but during those anticipatory spells when my behaviour becomes insufferable, I have discovered the only true antidote to that depression is to exercise, and afterwards to read.
And so, in the spirit of healing, one afternoon, shortly after moving to Hobart, I ran from my brother’s house in South Hobart to Fuller’s Bookstore in the city, and then to the dismay of staff and patrons, walked, for some time around that wonderful bookstore’s aisles, red in the face, occasionally coughing, catching my breath. It seems unimportant to discuss the specific reasons I needed, once again, literature to save me, but I did – I needed literature to show me a story that proved all this labour might be for something worthwhile. A few weeks earlier I had read Emmett Stinson’s review of Michael Winkler’s Grimmish, and after reading, again, this piece in which he proclaimed the book to be: probably the most unusual Australian book I will read in 2021, and without a doubt one of the best, I walked to the front of the store and asked, rather sheepishly – the book, despite praise from JM Coetzee, and after a string of rejections, was self-published – whether they stocked the title, to which the bookseller responded with a wonderful, conspiratorial smile that they did, that it was brilliant, that beyond the story of Joe Grim the Italian American boxer who had visited Australia between 1908 and 1909 and who could withstand more pain than anyone who had ever lived, there was a talking goat. Later, I learned Fuller’s Bookstore had made Grimmish their book of the month. I purchased it straight away.
There is likely to be a readership, however small, that enjoys what Winkler is attempting to do, and finds within these covers something sincere and worthwhile, so Michael Winkler writes in a self-review at the beginning of his courageous, pain-filled and genre-defying book, but it was not until I returned home that I read the wonderful sentence that follows: Sometimes, it is a question of timing, the happenstance of the right reader meeting the right book at the right time. I like this sentence because it’s brave and because it’s brazen, because it explodes vulnerability and mystery, because now, more than ever, we need those texts that talk to us as equals, that take risks and suggest, even through coincidence, the existence of something larger than ourselves. Although, perhaps, I like these sentences for another reason too: because they provide a window through which to see Winkler: that person who sat at a desk adding and subtracting words for months, years at a time. Because while it is true certain books are meant for certain readers at certain times, it is also true that certain authors chose – or were chosen – to write certain stories at other times, and as I continued reading it became increasingly clear that Winkler wrote this book not because he wanted to, but because he had to, and I wanted to know why.
Grimmish, in Winkler’s own words, is a book about the rich realm of pain: about the punishment Joe Grim welcomed to his body and face over the course of his boxing career, but also about writing and failure, and the challenges many authors face while attempting to live a literary life. Indeed, there are passages early on where one needs only to replace Joe Grim’s name with the author’s – or that of any author – to gain an insight into the production of a work. Grim goes down every three or four punches, clambers back up, and the crowd is laughing now, laughing because it is so preposterous one man could wear so much punishment, and then, after several pages detailing Grim’s scarlet and pulpy jaw now slack and open, his carcass reddened and brutalised, the wound that opens across his brow, before we discover that Williams (Grim’s opponent) only knows how to hit and Grim only knows how to absorb and stand, we are delivered this glorious line: he is exhausted and no-one seems to know what to do; an orgy of action has brought us to a point where everything seems peculiarly becalmed, and everyone bereft of ideas to solve the deadlock. The scene, of course, might describe writer’s block or loneliness or the moments before a breakdown, but in the end, the narrative takes a turn for the absurd as we learn Grim cares little for the refereed outcome – he will, notably, lose most of his professional fights, instead placing side bets that no boxer can knock him out – and when the referee stops the fight, calling in favour of Williams, it is Grim who: stays in there, staggering around like the town drunk, smacking his own chest and roaring noises of triumph, while Williams leaves, a man publicly shamed.
Can anything profound be drawn from an individual so singular, involved in activities so barbarous? Winkler asks, and throughout the course of the book, he dynamically, profoundly, and using a variety of narratives, attempts to answer this question. As Stinson writes, Grimmish is almost impossible to summarise; the book unfolds, largely, through a series of conversations between the narrator and his sherry-drinking uncle, a man who is in fact not his uncle but someone who attended a series of boxing matches featuring Joe Grim beginning in 1908. More importantly, however, we follow Grim’s boxing tour across Australia via a series of newspaper clippings and diary entries or reports that intentionally blend fiction and nonfiction, pain and humility, laughter and violence and dejection that, at times, brought this author to tears.
However, before we continue, know this: Grimmish is funny – absurdly, sporadically, intelligently funny. I’ve always tried to put humour into my work because it’s kind of what life is about, the writer Scott McClanahan says. Maybe it goes back to that seduction thing: like, if you can make somebody laugh, it disarms them. And then you can do any sort of fucked up thing in a book after that. Winkler, it seems, understands this too, and suddenly, in Chapter 11, we are introduced to the talking goat who tells venerable, and alarmingly sexist, but very good jokes while accompanying Grim and the narrator’s sherry-drinking uncle, who is not his uncle, across the heart of Australia. After several pages, the gloriously self-reflexive goat says, Enough etching of fucken detail, bit of narrative movement thanks, and we are, unexpectedly, transported to the Avellino Cathedral in southern Italy circa 1888 and we learn how a child born there called Saverio Giannone discovered his tolerance for pain and later became the boxer Joe Grim. I had discovered my talent, and thus my vocation, Grim says, after describing how he collected money from bystanders who paid to watch him run headfirst into a cathedral door. The trauma to my scone was negligible and only ever superficial – the skin split or welted. I realised that people enjoyed the blood, and this was good for earnings, and over time it dawned, also, that I liked the cynosure modality, to wit, I enjoyed the attention.
Of course, what makes Grim’s story so compelling is not that he accepts the pain, but that he invites it. It is a very hard thing to explain my courage, Grim is reported to have said in The Indianapolis Star in 1903. Who has knocked Joe Grim out? Nobody. It is impossible. Why? I will tell you. First, I have no fear. Second, I feel no pain. And then several paragraphs later: If I am knocked down it is because I am too light to stand up. Anyone can learn how to box. But to fight, it is different. I am Joe Grim. Nobody can knock me out. However, for all Grim’s courage, for all the punches absorbed by his head, we learn that Grim is forcibly committed to an insane asylum on Australia’s west coast, and then, again, to another institution in the United States for three years shortly after his retirement. In one of the book’s more sombre scenes, Winkler writes that there is a photo of Grim, two years before his death, dressed in a preposterous bib shirt and bow tie at a dinner for the Veteran Boxers’ Association. You notice two things. Firstly, that his one visible eye stares far off and might as well be made of glass. Secondly, that the angle of the hand holding the spoon that is in his mouth suggests that it is not his own hand. Grim, aged fifty-five, is almost certainly being fed like an infant.
What, then, are we to do with all this pain? What’s the point? And where does it go? The tragedy, of course, lies in the boxer’s mortality, however Grim, or at least Winkler, seems to suggest that all this pain was not for nothing, that, for Grim, the pain allowed him to stand in the meteoric aliveness of certain moments; pain, he seemed to be saying, could set him free. In that boxing time, I am outside of time, Grim, reportedly, says on the 27 August 1909 in the Evening News. Six rounds, three minutes each, and in that span I belong to that span only. There is no connection to clock time, earth time. And that is how I live, with and for those ripped out portions where time has no dominion. I pledged myself to this life, Grim says later, and if I survive through the six rounds and I always do, the reward is monetary and the reward is also another parcel of time-that-is-not-time, a neat portion of chronological space in which I do not have to submit to the ticking and the tocking. The metaphor, extended to creativity, is confronting, sacrificial, and largely, as Elizabeth Gilbert might say, a masculine one: this idea that we must wrestle with artistry, that the relationship required to enter what is often called ‘flow’ must be parasitic in nature. But then, as if to avoid that neat cliché, Grim contradicts himself several paragraphs later: I had some, a person or persons or perhaps it was just me, trying to say that the glory of pain is that it teaches you things. And I say as one who might know, if there is enough of it then pain is just pain. Yes it abstracts and swirls into shapes, oil on water, but a lot of pain is a lot of pain and it is not a friend and not a teacher and not a guide and not redemption. It is just –
Towards the end of Grimmish I saw Grim not as a man but as a storehouse for pain, a tragic figure who absorbed the world’s punishment not because he could but because he had – because that labour was financially necessary to survive in the world. The question, then, is: are we all Joe Grim? At the risk of sounding, suddenly, like a Year 12 student waking up to, and debating the merits of, capitalism: unless we are born into absurd privilege, to live or to afford to live in this world we must all work and suffer. The doctor, the paramedic, the nurse, the train driver all subject themselves to unspeakably long hours of work, often forgoing sleep in highly stressful environments, occasionally or frequently fraught with violence and resulting in PTSD, where the risks to mental-health and of suicide run high and life expectancy decreases; the office worker deprives themselves of family and nature to earn money for a company whose only purpose, by definition, is to make money. The miner inhales hazardous particles while exploiting the Earth; the artist risks poverty, alienation, failure, depression and, even suicide. Joe Grim could feel no physical pain, sure, but he still lost his mind, at least to the extent that he was committed, and a short time later ended up dead. And so, much like Grim’s pain – and Winkler’s obsession with and interrogation of it – we ask ourselves constantly, cyclically: what is the point of this story? Or rather we continue reading hoping, at times, desperately, for the existence of one.
Perhaps I am being dramatic. Perhaps we knew the point all along. Perhaps it is easier to say: in the end Grim dies, but his story does not. Stories don’t end, Winkler says. You know that. They don’t arc. They don’t do anything, except meander and continue and spin and wait to be rediscovered. And it is Winkler’s attempt to document Grim’s unfathomable life – to indirectly, absorb and transform some of his pain – that allows us, humbly, to see the beauty and validity in all lives, and to better see our own. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life, Roxane Gay writes in Bad Feminist. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds. And while Grim receives no better world, we realise, suddenly, unexpectedly that we are witnessing alchemy, that Winkler, by acknowledging and paying respect to Grim’s life is altering the course of his own.
To be clear, what I find fascinating about Grimmish is not the pugilism or violence, although it is fascinating – the head-butt contest set in the outback pub where drunk men on hands and knees with foreheads that are maroon and puce, livid with battery, explode: from their crouch, rocketing their heads towards each other until they collide with a sick crack, is described with such dexterity and intensity that it makes Wake in Fright seem like a children’s story (although of course this is a joke). What I find fascinating is the author’s relationship to writing, or rather his obsession with pain and narrative and purpose that runs parallel to, and eventually, at least for this reader, hijacks the story.
Detractors of the work might say the book has no plot, that its narrative modes are contradictory, inconsistent, but Winkler anticipates these reactions. There is no narrative arc, he says, close to zero love interest, skittish occasional action, incident rather than plot, and a narrator who is intermittently compelling but prevaricates and self-deludes like a broody prince at Elsinore – and yet we power through the book, turning page after page until we slam, triumphantly, to a close. Although, now, with some distance, I wonder: could the book have been written any other way?
Winkler’s genius lies in his realisation that pain is subjective, and that books, by virtue of their limitations, should not and cannot ever translate, literally, the lived experience of another, yet it is precisely these impossibilities that make Winkler’s attempts at understanding Grim’s pain – and translating his own – so compelling. By using the combination of fiction, non-fiction, reportage and the outlandish ramblings of a talking goat, we are ourselves able, instead, to sketch and create a portrait of pain, of madness. Much like a broken mirror lying smashed and swept together on a floor, the book reflects something even greater than the original whole.
Perhaps, though, it is better to say this: I have spent the past month living in this work, trying to understand it, to intellectualise it, to explain to myself and others what they might learn from it. In the end, Grimmish is work of pain and feeling – one of those rare narratives that delights and repulses and hums with such madness and integrity that we wish, at its conclusion, only to return to our desks and to forget all the writing rules we were taught at school. We wish, finally, to attempt something far more audacious: to write as Winkler has, to write with heart.
Consider this paragraph, this broken shard of glass worth the price of the book alone:
For some reason then I thought of all the projects I have worked on and not told my wife the details of until they were done, and all of them coming to naught: the novels, unpublished, unwanted; the plays, unproduced, unwanted; innumerable poems, reviews, monologues, opinion columns, soiled rags of on-spec journalism, and of course the indigestible short stories perhaps my most awful metier, actually obviously not, that would definitely be the poetry: and I tried to do the maths: and I thought it might be between half-a-million and a million words written in hope of publication and then thrown back in my face or, far more accurately, slumping slowly in the void of non-acknowledgement: and I tried and failed to convert those words (mostly redrafted-rethought-rewritten three, five, seventeen times) into minutes and days and I could not do it: and then I realised that what they added up to, really, was most of a lifetime: and I said to my wife I have spent my allotted years in a room alone writing words no-one wants or will ever read, it is the stupidest life imaginable: and my wife, my perfect wife held me tight against her in my wretchedness and said, no darling; it might be absurd, but it is not stupid.
Perhaps, then, the only way to end this report might be to enter the story and nod furiously while echoing the author’s perfect wife’s sentiments too: Michael Winkler – it might be absurd, but it is not stupid.
In Grimmish you have travelled to unknowable places and bared your soul; all the labour was for something, and it is the bravest thing you can do.
And while this review should end here, it does not end here, cannot end here, because reviews, like stories, don’t end. They don’t arc. They don’t do anything, except meander and continue and spin and wait to be rediscovered, and given the extraordinary news that Grimmish will be published by Puncher and Wattmann later this year, I suspect this review will join the doubtless others to follow – and I hope these future reviewers do what Winkler has done: guide readers and writers back to a literature that has the audacity to believe in itself.