Thoughts on “Boxer Hobo”

I know that it has been a long time since I’ve posted on this. I actually had a post going in late-December, but the website seemed to have gobbled it up. There wasn’t anything left of it on the other end! Lately, I’ve been delving into different writers, looking at ebooks as well as paperbacks. I’ve finally started George R.R. Martin – but I had to make it all of the way to the top of the Dark Tower to get there, and I’ve started reading free ebooks in order to get other perspectives, other voices, other plots, and other characters. Some, such as Albert Simon’s protagonist, Henry Wright, are easy to enjoy from the word go. Others, such as the one in the book I’m about to ‘review,’ aren’t as easy. To those of you who have read this book that I am about to ‘review,’ you will find reason for my preconceptions within the review itself; I view it less as a review and more as notes about conventions of writing. I hope you enjoy it, nonetheless.

I picked up this first free book, Boxer Hobo by Johnny Noctor on a whim. I’d been looking to expand my reading repertoire, and there’s nothing easier than a free book. It takes guts to publish something for free; I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it myself. At least, not now. Maybe if I can actually get published elsewhere, there’d be a different tale to tell.

At first, I thought that the fact that the protagonist was named Johnny Noctor and that the main character was named Johnny Noctor was a coincidence – or, rather, a gimmick that the author used to make a connection with the reader. After all, Dante Alighieri named his main character Dante in The Divine Comedy, and I’m sure I’ve seen it elsewhere. However, evidence on Johnny Noctor’s blog, ( suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, I treated this ebook as a work of fiction, and was under that impression until I started researching the book at the very end.

One thing that really struck me was Johnny Noctor’s/the narrator’s voice. There are misspellings and places where it lacks cohesion, as well as moments that flit in and out of the narrative, but it all serves to build this voice that brings the reader right into the author’s/author’s avatar’s mentality. From describing the fights in little sparks to his boxing-driven poetry to the repetition of the Robocop flicker image, Noctor (the author/narrator) puts together the tale of a person who has moments of clarity interspersed with moments of being addled, all the while providing a narrative personality that is both harsh and endearing. Some of this perceived harshness may come from a California kid taking in a Tasmanian sensibility, but no matter the cause, the first third of the book was much harder to get through than the last.
Without ruining any plot points, another strength that I saw in Johnny’s writing was in the author’s descriptions that delve into the character’s struggles with alcohol. He doesn’t sugar coat it, and doesn’t approach it as an apology. At times, he approaches it with being ashamed with his actions, which isn’t quite the same as an apology; instead, I would say that this tone of shame is truth-telling, with some self-deprecation added for effect. The presence of Mount Wellington, whether intended or not, forms a strong backdrop for mention of the main character’s sobriety – as a symbol of how far he has to go, as well as how far he has come. His time spent there doesn’t always adequately depict Mount Wellington, but the narrative does an excellent job at describing how Mount Wellington makes him feel.

Aside from the misspellings – not to say that I haven’t made that mistake, or that some of the biggest mass market books are devoid of misspellings – there were two things that frustrated me. They’re both easily explained by the notion that this is an autobiographical narrative; not everyone wants their personality exposed, warts and all. The first, pre-empted by my last comment, is that the narrator gives us a perfect view of his own personality, but very little to go on about so many of the characters, including H, his wife, and his sister. We get examples of how some characters are underhanded, of how some are incompetent, and how some just don’t seem to understand Johnny Noctor (who should have been a doctor, as the rhyme goes). At the same time, the narrator spends so little time ruminating on his wife and his sister, as well as the relationships the character Johnny has with them, that they hardly leave an imprint. If their names were ever given, they’re already lost on me. The second main grievance I have with this narrative is the lack of a sense of continuity; it doesn’t flow like a novel, and doesn’t have many big sparks of tension or revelation. Stylistically, this lack of continuity has some strong points; it matches the mood of narrative quite well; after all, a person who suffers from frequent blackouts isn’t as likely to be concerned with continuity. If this is indeed all autobiographical narrative, then it also makes sense in the context that life isn’t full of these sparks and these ah-ha moments; sometimes, our life narrative is more about getting on in the world and getting through one day at a time. Nevertheless, as a man who has been programmed to view narratives as having direction and a sense of resolution, the other components of the tale’s narrative arc were not as apparent to me as they could have been.

When I read a book, there’s usually a likeability factor that comes into play; do I like the main character? In many of my favorite books, I do, even if I do not directly relate with the character. In Boxer Hobo, I found it difficult to like Johnny Noctor, as I’d find that many alcoholics who are in the throes of the disease probably find it difficult to like themselves. Not only did I find it difficult to relate to Johnny, amazing narrative voice and all, but I found it difficult to be satisfied with a central character who is simultaneously self-defeating and supremely self-confident. Moreover, I didn’t understand how a man could go from 67 kilos (148 lbs) to 100 (200 lbs) kilos, then down to 80 kilos, back up to 100 kilos, and back down below 80 again over the span of about two years. Some of these swings described were swings of 44 lbs (20 kilos) in a matter of months. I guess I’d really need to live through what Noctor lived through to understand those swings. I figure that the road to sobriety is not an easy one, whether assisted or otherwise, and living with a brain injury doesn’t sound like it is any easier, at that. Ultimately, I found reason to like Johnny Noctor (the character) and not just because Johnny Noctor (the character) and Johnny Noctor (the author) may be one and the same.

Early in the book, when my wife asked me what I thought of it, I wouldn’t have recommended it on virtue of likeability, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the unique voice of the first person narrator, as well as his wit, and the difficulty of portraying a character who is ambling about with moments of purpose laced in between long segments of listlessness. As I come away from this book, I feel greater satisfaction with the character having seen his overall growth throughout the narrative. Given the realization that the character and the author may be the same person, I’d have to say that I’d be inclined to recommend this book to others, with the caveat that they should read it through to the end if they are going to read it at all.

That leaves me wondering what I’ve learned from this book. Given my own experience writing first person narratives, I’d have to say that voice is the most difficult thing to get right, and Johnny Noctor nailed it. How did he do it? The narrative voice stands out to me so much because it is crude, it is raw, and it is harsh. All of these attitudes linger over the book like the unrelenting glow of reality. Perhaps, in writing my own first person (fictitious) narratives, I need to think like a character who is more rough, or more self-deprecating, or more of whatever I need that character to be. They can’t all be the Scout Finches or Earl Hickeys of the world. Lastly, I’ve also learned the importance of building up secondary and tertiary characters so that they leave an imprint. I’ve seen it done correctly so many times (chiefly in longer works) that I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like when I come away thinking that I neither understand nor can imagine a given character. Perhaps I shouldn’t be worrying about what others do, as much as I should worry about what it will take to get me published.

If you’re out there, Johnny: thanks for the read! You’ve opened up a door to Johnny (the character’s) world, fictitious or not. To all of you who still read my blog, I’ll extend the opposite gratitude: thanks for reading what I have to say. Someday, hopefully I can return the favor.

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