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Mad Skills 

A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone," wrote A.J. Leibling in The Sweet Science, going on to note that Hemingway boxed, and so did the French existentialist Albert Camus. Scores of other contemporary writers, from Joyce Carol Oates to Richard Ford, have been fascinated by the sport's stoic and brutal romance, at once intimate and epic in nature.

"There's also the sense of the unknown," says local novelist Sarah K. Inman, author of the newly released Finishing Skills (Livingston Press), which draws heavily from her brief stint as a pro boxer. "When you get into the ring, you don't really know what to expect -- like sitting down to write and not knowing what's going to come out." Not to mention the importance of rhythm, developing your own style, and maybe most significantly, discipline. "Like writing, when you're really committed, there's the necessary discipline of having to get up every morning and work at it." Inman herself trained six days a week for the nearly nine months before she got into the ring for the first time as a pro.

In 1997, Inman moved from New York to New Orleans, rented a slave-quarter apartment in the French Quarter and began tutoring Tulane business majors. As an antidote to the particular frustrations of that job, one day she saw a flyer for kickboxing lessons. "Kickboxing purged me of something. As I got into shape, I felt myself releasing some mental toxin that had built up in my system over the years." The trainers recognized her affinity for the sport, and soon she was training in a tiny converted storefront on the dodgy end of South Rendon Street, at times sparring with male boxers on the pro circuit.

The fighting scene gave Inman a unique entry into a New Orleans that few outsiders ever see. Originally from Rhode Island, Inman wanted Finishing Skills to be as much about a Northerner experiencing the cultural and racial distinctiveness of New Orleans as about boxing. Though protagonist Heidi Whitehill is from Maine -- "a joyless place," as she repeats to her German-Polish parents -- she doesn't exhibit much discomfort with her black Ninth Ward trainer and the others at the fictitious Academy on Freret Street. Like Whitehill, Inman worked on her rhythm and attitude listening to rap and R&B and socialized freely with the other trainers and fighters. The sport's focus on the individual seemed to have an equalizing effect, diminishing the divisions of race and sex.

Inman's spare and active writing style lends itself to the subject. It dances along the physical and concrete without dipping into too much commentary, and though it's a first-person narrative, it doesn't fall into the lyrical descriptiveness and introspection that some people erroneously associate with "women's fiction."

"I have a lot of hate in my heart," Whitehill says a few times throughout the book, sometimes to herself, other times to a lover. Finishing Skills' protagonist works through such hostilities, regarding her family, her uncertainty about the direction her life should be taking and the isolating drive of wanting to prove herself to the world. Author Inman says of those first months of her own training: "We still didn't have an air conditioner, but when I would sweat, I continued purging myself of something, and at the same time, I was making room for something new."

The spiritual and philosophical side of fighting wasn't new to Inman. She had studied jujitsu with her brother, a sensei, learning the restraint and responsibility inherent in the art. Inman also credits her 13 years of training as a ballet dancer as preparation for the intensity and discipline of boxing. After she realized that she didn't have the true killer instinct necessary to box professionally, she found herself in key physical condition to make the transition from the ring to the ropes of trapeze work with Aerial Inc. in 2000.

Next to Dennis' Barber Shop on Freret Street is G.O.W (which Inman says stands for Gangs of Women), the most recent storefront gym set up by the nomadic boxing crew that inspired many of the characters in Finishing Skills. Though the storefront took on a few feet of water from Hurricane Katrina, the heavy bag still hangs in the middle of the room, dipping right under the water line, a few boxing gloves strewn about the construction, the bottom half of the walls already hung with raw sheetrock studded with screws. Inman doesn't know what's become of the people or that fighting scene since late August. And though she still keeps fit using a boxing workout with a heavy bag and jump rope, Inman herself doesn't spar anymore because it's so bad for your brain. This concern is, of course, a major difference between writers and boxers, and an author as talented as Inman has way too much to lose.

click to enlarge Sarah K. Inman works out her aggression in her debut - novel, Finishing Skills, inspired by her brief stint as - a professional boxer. - DAVID LEE SIMMONS
  • David Lee Simmons
  • Sarah K. Inman works out her aggression in her debut novel, Finishing Skills, inspired by her brief stint as a professional boxer.
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