The Distance

by Eddie Muller

Sunday, January 19, 2003

Featured image for The Distance

[I read this for a mailing list discussion and these comments are taken from that discussion; which means that they are out of context and contain spoilers.]

[on the setting]

At the beginning I didn’t think either setting was going to work for me. I like the odd historical novel but this was feeling very self conciously historical as it was using a style of writing of the time as well and that’s not a style I’m that familiar with. Boxing is a sport that doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest and after a few pages of getting confused by terms and characters I decided that I wasn’t going to go the distance and resolved to just give this book the fifty page test and give up.

After fifty pages I was hooked, my ear had become accustomed to the narration, the boxing scene and its characters had come alive for me and there was no way I could put the book down. I think the author did a really good job of setting the scenes and I enjoyed the look into the newspaper world as well. I haven’t quite finished yet so I’m not sure how much of the plot could only happen in a boxing setting but it feels to me very much as if the fact that many of the major characters are all people who put their lives and health on the line for a living is essential to the way that they view the world.

[on the characters] Claire Escalante is the character who will stick with me I think. The book was basically about tough men and the inclusion of a really strong female character was what it needed to make it appeal to me. On the whole I thought most of the characters were strongly portrayed. After I got through the first couple of chapters there were very few characters that I was “um, remind me who this guy is again” about. Billy himself had a very clear voice and telling little stories about each person like how they came by their nicknames helped me keep all the men straight in my head. There were plenty of characters I didn’t like much but I can’t pick out any who seemed badly written or wishy washy.

I thought Muller handled the marital relationships between Billy and Ida and Hack and Claire well, lots of weird stuff going on but the way that the characters dealt with and reacted to situations seemed real to me. As to professional relationships, everybody seemed a little too reverential towards Billy and while this enforced the idea of him as a key player in the boxing community it did seem that he ought to have a few more explicit enemies around the place.

On the whole I thought the characters were convincing, larger than life and not anyone I’d want to meet but they fit well into the story and the setting.

[on the noir-ness]

I don’t really know enough about noir to answer this at any length but the tag “noir” brings to my mind a vision of men in hats and overcoats with cigars skulking in dark alleyways whilst neon signs flicker on and off, all happening in monochrome of course. And that’s the same kind of aura that this book gave to me. The setting and the way Billy narrated the story seemed very noirish to me but, as I say, I really don’t know what I’m talking about when it comes to noir.

[on the noir-ness]

I felt that Billy was trustworthy in that he was telling us what he saw and not embellishing or changing things to suit any agenda. But we were seeing it all filtered through his eyes and so we only saw what others chose to present to him. I don’t think the story would have been so compelling if the author hadn’t have stuck so rigidly to Billy’s viewpoint. If the story had been told in the third person it would have lost a lot of its believability.

I enjoyed both the newspaper articles, which helped put this book in its place, and the anecdotes, which really helped flesh out the characters in my head.

[on the ending]

I knew this would come up sooner or later so I’ve been waiting to ask about it as I was confused too.

I got the impression that Billy forged a confession from Claire to give to Francis O’Connor in order to get Hack mostly off the hook. The story in that confession was “Claire strangles Gig, Hack shows up, Hack and Claire dispose of body”. We know that it was Billy rather than Claire who helped Hack dispose of the body.

When I read about the forged confession I thought Billy was foisting the murder off on Claire simply because she was dead and it couldn’t do her any harm. In Claire’s real letter to Billy she says “Hack didn’t mean to kill Gig” as if that is what she thought happened but earlier in the book Hack knew nothing about the strangulation. So I went back and read the last few pages again thinking that I’d missed something and someone else was implicated, perhaps Burney, but that didn’t seem to have happened. And I finished the book feeling that I still didn’t quite know the whole who-and-why-and-how-dunnit. Was Claire’s confession, as forged by Billy, the truth, or did Billy never get to the bottom of it either, or did I miss something entirely?

The slightly unfinished feeling that I had at the end of the book of not quite being certain what had really happened did spoil the book for me ever so slightly.