Book Review: The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith - More2Read

The Fighter by Michael Farris Smith

A blistering novel of violence and deliverance set against the mythic backdrop of the Mississippi Delta

The acres and acres of fertile soil, the two-hundred-year-old antebellum house, all gone. And so is the woman who gave it to Jack, the foster mother only days away from dying, her mind eroded by dementia, the family legacy she entrusted to Jack now owned by banks and strangers. And Jack’s mind has begun to fail, too. The decades of bare-knuckle fighting are now taking their toll, as concussion after concussion forces him to carry around a stash of illegal painkillers and a notebook of names that separates friend from foe.

But in a single twisted night, Jack loses his chance to win it all back. Hijacked by a sleazy gambler out to settle a score, Jack is robbed of the money that will clear his debt with Big Momma Sweet–the queen of Delta vice, whose deep backwoods playground offers sin to all those willing to pay–and open a path that could lead him back home. Yet this sudden reversal of fortunes introduces an unlikely savior in the form of a sultry, tattooed carnival worker. Guided by what she calls her “church of coincidence,” Annette pushes Jack toward redemption, only to discover that the world of Big Momma Sweet is filled with savage danger.

Damaged by regret, crippled by twenty-five years of fists and elbows, heartbroken by his own betrayals, Jack is forced to step into the fighting pit one last time, the stakes nothing less than life or death. With the raw power and poetry of a young Larry Brown and the mysticism of Cormac McCarthy, Michael Farris Smith cements his place as one of the finest writers in the American literary landscape.


Praise for The Fighter: 

“One of those wonderful and rare books that’s both a page-turner and a novel of great depth and emotion. The Fighter is Southern noir at its finest.”-Ace Atkins, New York Times bestselling author of The Fallen and The Sinners

“Michael Farris Smith is so good, I might actually hate him a little bit. The Fighter is a book I wish I’d written but am deeply grateful I got to read. It is a masterful portrait of place and character and how one influences the other, with language that is both brutal and tender at once. Smith loves Jack Boucher and the Mississippi Delta to the bone.”-Attica Locke, author of Bluebird, Bluebird

“I loved The Fighter. Michael Farris Smith is one of the most exciting new voices in American fiction. Just as I couldn’t put down Desperation Road till I finished, I tore through this novel as well. I’m hooked.”
Brad Watson, author of Miss Jane

The Fighter is a beautifully written parable of a man, abandoned as a child, at war with himself. Hiding behind the expertly-handled plot and poetic meditations on violence and substance abuse is the notion that lack of family can send you on a continuous tumble through darkness. With its tension-filled and enlightening final chapters, The Fighter delivers a powerful and engaging read from one of our newest and finest writers.”
Tim Gautreaux, author of The Missing

“Michael Farris Smith is continuing the Southern Gothic tradition of William Gay and Flannery O’Connor. Drenched in sorrow and written with complex language, The Fighter moves toward a conclusion both surprising and inevitable.”-Chris Offutt, author of Country Dark and Kentucky Straight

“Like living language, literary modes have both a formal and a demotic form. What we call ‘noir’ is high tragedy brought down to the forgotten and disavowed–the fallen, who can do little but go on falling. Ours to witness the beauty and power of their fall. With The Fighter, Michael Farris Smith brings that tradition brilliantly into the present.”-James Sallis, author of Drive

“This resourceful writer weds violence, despair, and glimmers of hope during a few tense days in the life of a once-legendary bare-knuckle fighter… A gifted storyteller who parses battered dreams and the legacies of abandonment with a harsh realism that is both saddening and engaging.”-Kirkus

“This crisply written tale of thwarted lives and rawboned courage will sit comfortably alongside the similarly hardscrabble work of Daniel Woodrell and Chris Offutt.”-Booklist

“Ferocious… vivid descriptions never slow the pace of the plot, which moves swiftly toward an inevitable but still surprising climax. As violent as it is poetic, Smith’s novel draws the reader in from beginning to end.”-Publishers Weekly

“A dark bluesy tale, The Fighter is the raw story of a broke-down Mississippi cage fighter searching for deliverance in whatever form it appears.”-Shelf Awareness


“To be alive at all is to have scars – John Steinbeck”

“there is a great big world spinning around and sometimes it spins against you. Sometimes it spins with you. And sometimes it spins us right into what we need.”

“Boucher is his last name. You gotta say it just right. Boo-shay. That means butcher in French. He’d sure as hell carve you up with those hands.”

The things they carried inner and outer, the scars, memories and things lost, or tattoos and bruises and bone breakages, the abandonment of the past and their roads into the unknown, one step at a time, fates on a path finding oneself in all the sound and fury with some peace, one hopes, coming to fruition for some in this tale.

Outsiders, misfits on the margins of living or dying at times, fighters against the storms.

Fighter look at some definition in the dictionary :

  • a person or animal that fights.

“the distinction between civilian populations and fighters”

  • a person who does not easily admit defeat in spite of difficulties or opposition.

“there’ll be months of physiotherapy but medical staff say she’s a fighter”

: one that fights: such as

(1) : warriorsoldier

(2) : a pugnacious or game individual

(3) : boxer

 And two characters in this tale do not easily admit to defeat.

Jack Boucher, aka Butcher, is like a Hawk and Annette is like a Butterfly.

Jack is the main one I will mention, the fighter, in all his self-loathing and regret he needs to do one thing right, life is moving forward in a dangerous pace, lives at risk, money and property in the balance, and that old dying weight of getting old and his battling drugs, drink, and live or die, at his core he is a fighter, whether he has still some left in him to win one big fight in the cage is for the reader to discover in reading this poignant narrative of the outsiders, in pursuit of solace, happiness, and truths all layered out with some great poetry and craft in telling like that of past masters from the south bringing the toil and sweat of man and woman for survival and some happiness, writers like William Gay, Harry Crews, Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, Daniel Woodrell, and William Faulkner.

Jack didn’t have a great start in life, went to five foster homes and two group homes, and as the tale unravels with his final foster mother in her final days, he has her property that may go to sale to the public if he doesn’t find money by doing what he did best, fighting.

Memorable characters, in a terrible beauty of a narrative.



“His life was filled with drug dealers and illegal gamblers and men who killed dogs with other dogs and fighters like himself who lived in violent and unforgiving worlds. There had been women and even when he had found a small sympathy or something tender he knew that it was not true but part of the trade. The only one who loved him was sitting in a nursing home in Clarksdale and could no longer recognize his face or his name and he had betrayed her beyond even his own imagination but he had eight days to bring her home.”


“He rubbed at his temple and shifted in the seat and with each move he felt it. He felt the twenty years of granite fists and gnarled knuckles beating against his temples and the bridge of “his nose and across his forehead and into the back of his head. The sharp points of elbows into his kidneys and into the hard muscles of his thighs and into his throat and the thrust of knees against his own and into his lower back and against his ears and jaw. He felt the twist of arms and legs and wrists and ankles, being turned and wrenched in ways that God didn’t intend for them to be turned and wrenched. He felt the breaking of his own teeth and the blood in his mouth and the swollen fingers and swollen eyes and the ringing in his ears and the chainlink fence mashed against his face. He felt the scars and slit in his tongue and the small knots across his body that had risen but never fully disappeared and he felt the rust in his joints when he wiggled his fingers or turned his head or raised his arms to pull on a shirt. The crash of his body against the hard floor and against any of the four steel poles of the cage corners. He felt the pain in his head from concussion after concussion after concussion after concussion after concussion and he lived in the blurred world of a rocked mind. He felt the streaks of pain through his eyes and down his spine and he felt the burst of bright lights and the sharp, unexpected noises of the modern world that screamed through his brain. Broken fingers and dislocated kneecaps and sprained neck and gashed skull and again and again and again the fists and knuckles and knees and elbows and he felt it all as if every blow he had absorbed and every blow he had delivered still existed somewhere in an invisible cloud of pain that draped and held him like some migrant soul in search of home. The years passing and his body rusting and his mind like some great wide open space with howling and twisting winds and swirls of memory that could not differentiate between now and then and he felt it all.”


“She believed she could have anything she wanted. But she didn’t know what she wanted so she had lived her young adult life guided by her own church of coincidence and she faithfully followed its direction without the necessity of reason or justification, like a fallen leaf trusting its flight to the shifts of a mighty wind.”


“What she did not like was living her life in the dark. The dark of the showroom and the dark of night when she arrived and when she left. The dark faces that told her what they thought she wanted to hear with dark voices and dark hands sliding closer to her dark body. Never eating a breakfast because she slept through the days and woke in the late afternoon to find that things had happened in the world while she danced or dreamed. The weather had shifted or a movie she wanted to see had come and gone from the theater or there had been an alert for a missing child and the child had been found. The world continued to spin while they gawked at her from cushioned chairs.”


“As he got older and as he ached more he had begun to work a fix now and then. When he knew the opponent couldn’t hurt him until he was ready to be hurt or if the payday for fixing was greater than the payday for winning. But there was one thing he would not take and that was being called old man. He could survive their young muscles and quick hands and cheap shots and drunks standing against the cage calling him names when he didn’t seem to be fighting back but only hanging out until it was time to let his hands drop. Take the right punch and then go down and stay down and then get up and collect. He could take all of that. But he could not take it when the opponent said stay down, old man. Or get up and take some more, old man. Or give it up, old man, the young fighters would whisper when they were clutched together. And that was when the transformation began. No matter the fix. No matter the money at stake. No matter how bad he was bleeding or hurt, if his opponent called him an old man it became a different fight. And the money did not flow in the right direction. And the debts he owed for not doing what he said he was going to do spread from state to state.”


“Sick of the dope and how bad he needed it and sick of the booze and the nausea. Sick of the mounting debts and running from one place to another trying to get even and sick of the sight of himself in the mirror and the thoughts of disloyalty that stuck in his mind whenever he thought about Maryann. He washed his hands and washed his face. Felt the weight upon him from all sides and he had made every excuse for himself since Maryann had gone into the home but that shit was over.”


“His mind spun in circles of memory. Flashes of a white-framed house and a shutter blown loose in a winter storm and the clap clap clap of the shutter banging against the house in the cold wind. A woman on her porch swing and another woman in the dark corner of a bar and a busted face against a dirt floor and the hot and blinding sun of a day spent catching frogs along a soggy creek bank. Flashing lights of the great floors of casinos and the cross smile of a slick-haired dealer and a baseball in the air and a boy in a red uniform trying to run under it. In his drunk and drugged stupor his life passed by in ghosts and apparitions and he searched for something specific to hold on to but his mind flowed like a river that both brought visions to him and carried them away. His head fallen against the window pane and his eyes out into the storm and the only thing he knew was that he had once been a boy and then he had become a hitchhiker through his own life. He stared at the silver trails of rain against the window and from somewhere far behind his eyes came the shrill cry of a hawk.”


“Taking more red pills and more blue pills and drinking more whiskey to rid him of the sickness of taking too many pills and drinking too much whiskey.”



Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 18 March 2018