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The Shadow Boxer

by Steven Heighton

In a 1997 essay, Steven Heighton – poet, short story writer, intellectual, registered hunk, and now novelist – warns that “to survive as a full-time writer you have to manage your affairs in a way that is partly salesmanlike and careerist,” while “to remain an artist you have to maintain or deepen a sacramental connection to your work.” He proposes such a paradox for The Shadow Boxer’s Sevigne Torrins, who at age 24 “went down from the Soo to the city to make it, to make himself a writer, swagger, shine and recite on the ivory stages, find love – all the old dreams.” Sevigne sucks up Toronto’s glitter and loses a book deal, decent love, his sobriety, and most of his sacramental connections. These are generous subjects for a writer in Heighton’s position – both inside and outside the glitter.

The first part of the novel explores Sevigne’s relationship with his father, and his father’s relationships with ships and booze. The writing is organically poetic, intelligent, and compassionate. In his exploration of Sevigne as an amateur boxer – and of fighting’s analogy to artistry – Heighton’s material is authentic; the scenes are exciting and true.

But when Sevigne journeys to Toronto, Heighton tries many awkward devices to expose how writing as a career confounds identity. For a couple of hundred pages, the narrative veers into present tense; the style is mannered and self-conscious; the story feels stagnant. As well, point of view ricochets between trite and thin characters. Though the writing is merely mimicking Sevigne’s sluttish urbanity, Heighton does ask us to persist with a protagonist who likens a spoiled book deal to his aging girlfriend’s miscarriage. Are things really this ugly with the mega-deal youngsters who write in Toronto?

By the end, the hero dwells alone on a rugged Lake Superior island looking for the sacred in himself, and again, Heighton is hypnotic, the writing tense and rich. We ask too much from first novels; this one is nervy, generous, flawed, and darkened by a writer’s wise misgivings about his own commodification.