Tag Archives: American History

Book Review: The Right-Hook of The Big Smoke

The Big Smoke, Cover.

The Big Smoke, Cover.

Right-Hook of The Big Smoke

In the collection of poetry, The Big Smoke, Adrian Matejka sets up an all-American underdog in that of historical boxing legend Jack Johnson. With skillful form and rich language, Matejka highlights a determination to keep his protagonist fighting for his life, to keep the heavy weight champion going, and to show the effects his character has on those near him. Matejka uses mechanical allegories and aggressive metaphors to describe a man as being similar to a well-oiled machine or animal. Whether for violence in the ring, or violence in domestic life, his gears are always spinning. The power within The Big Smoke stems from questions that it asks the reader. These questions of race, of segregation, of violence, and of gender, bring to mind an oppressive time in our not-so-distance past. The inquiries come in the densely compact prose and terse lines. This fictional history of collected poems graphically details the trials and tribulations of Jack Johnson, while it asks the reader provocative questions of racism, violence, and gender in American culture. The poems also ponder the worth of a man, in relation to his identity and appearance, while showcasing the consequence of action upon a person’s character. Adrian draws from the historical fiction based on the real-life boxer Jack Johnson. Johnson’s persona and attitude come out with Matejka’s voice. Pulling no punches, The Big Smoke reads as a how-to in boxing wins, and gives fresh perspective on the vantage point of another human, a person rooted in American history, from a completely different culture, and an antiquated time.

The Big Smoke focuses on topics of racism, the All-American rise to the top, physicality of a man, sexuality, and a violence driven sport. Themes put forward throughout his collection carry over from the distant past to shed light on topics still relevant today. Racism appears to be a key emphasis with Matejka’s African American protagonist, Jack Johnson. The Big Smoke starts out by detailing a man who is not afraid to fight to prove his worth, whether he is black or white. Jack appears as an everyman’s man. He is a deeply forthcoming and challenged individual who sets out in the world with odds against him—because of the color of his skin. He knows he must use his physical strength to get what he wants. Not only is Jack aware of his predicament, he faces it head on in physical bouts. Constant reference to fighters drawing the “colored line” shows the intense oppression that existed in American history, and in Jack’s professional life. Not only was Jack subject to being denied the opportunity to fight for his living, he was antagonized by those in the crowd while he fought. Matejka makes art of describing fight scenes of high pomp and lavish fashion. A man’s dream of success and fortune is seen through the eyes of Johnson, though the inverse is also shown. With violence, racism, and sexuality comes the idea of a dangerous living. Matejka maps out a precarious world. Jack Johnson is at times his best friend and his own worst enemy. Ego from being a champion overtakes his senses and draws him closer to his demise. When Jack has everything, the cars, the money, the champagne, the women, the sex, and the victories—even with the negative aspects of the racial strife, he still wants more. His insatiable drive within American culture is a play on the society’s lust for possession and power, and what a person will go through to get it.

The detailed setting of The Big Smoke adds unique framing the feel of the poems. Though the setting of The Big Smoke appears to exist in the south, or on the west coast, it may better reflect America as a whole. Valuable aspects throughout this collection of poetry are the greatness in details given. At times these details come off-handedly, in relation to motor vehicles, hotel rooms, intimate settings, and hot midday boxing matches where men are beaten to pulps—as detailed props of the locale. Matejka uses sharp imagery to show intense struggle and pain. In many of his poems he describes a man being torn apart physically with language so elegant and so commonplace that the reader will hardly bat an eye, only to realize the power of the line thereafter. A good author can create amazing works with the simplest words. Matejka does this masterfully, yet not without throwing hints of French, Latin, and early Modern English language into the mix. When foreign lines come up in The Big Smoke, the reader may be somewhat confused at the placement or idea of such phrases. However, these spirts and fragments show the intelligence of the main character. It sheds light on his mentality. Jack Johnson can relate to these classics—Shakespeare and the unfamiliar, he is well read black man in a southern American setting. This detail is telling. It allows for the reader to have empathy, to see eye to eye with the struggle. Jack Johnson this successful individual is only being oppressed by the color of his skin. He has been placed in the unfortunate setting of racial tension. Though it seems an odd pairing, Jack Johnson and Southern United States, it alludes to America’s melting pot makeup. We are all characters in the fight of life trying to get ahead, trying to prevail on those around us, to make it. The American South is a hotbed of controversy, steeped in oppression. The setting and language keeps the reader engaged while on edge, and this defines Matejkas talent for creating fiction of a real-life hero.

Voice, aggression, cocky confidence, self-assured prize fighter, forget the race, swagger, these are the authors tools for creating a violent machine of a man, a man on the verge of becoming a veritable monster, and a master of his sport. Matejka challenges the reader with such pointed topics by using straightforward words and dialogue. Jack Johnson as the subject is not a timid creature, but iron-fisted boxer with his assertions. He is explosive. His dead-pan humor is either that to be laughed at, or completely serious and not at all. He is not an individual to tango with. If he wants something, a woman, a hit, a win in a fight, he takes it without asking. The way he eggs his opponents on is textbook bully. His nature is captured by referencing animals and machines. Matejka has created a working Goliath of a man in his beginnings, in his prime, and in his relative demise. Jack Johnson may tell the other fighter how to take a punch, or how to go down, tell his love interest that he will choke her, or buy her jewelry, but he is foretelling of his action, and this creates the intrigue. He has thoughtful meaning about him. While some aspects of his personality may be hidden in brief breaks for correspondence between Jack and his companions, the lack of information given provides a natural tension to ensure the reader’s locked into the story. Matejka’s words work as tools to produce a dangerous man partial to violence. Jack is an interesting example of a product of his own environment. He gets violence and he gives it back. He is the champion of boxing, yet he is the champion of a violent and barbaric sport. And those bold attributes carry over into both aspects of his life, sport and personal. Jack Johnson’s larger than life persona is Matejka’s Goliath in print.

Matejka gives you the visual, the historical background. In the opening of The Big Smoke while he discusses Shakespeare and Bear fights. The world his poems create is one of old—yet still relevant. He sets up Jack as an animal, a monster, yet with an empathetic quality of which the reader can relate to. His barbaric nature is countered always with luxury, or education, or elegance in style of the day. To quote Shakespeare is to know of Shakespeare. To ride in fancy car, buy expensive jewelry, and pop fine champagne in bathtubs, is to understand luxury. Jack’s life is setup up so that the reader can be carried into the success and failure. This gives feeling of closeness of relation to the reader. Jack’s voice is seen through with Matejka’s language. Matejka cleverly uses colloquialisms and low-demotic dialogue to push the reader into a caste system and to show where the fighter came from. This place in society is painted perfectly. Human nature is reflected within the subject’s needs. Jack needs money, he needs women, and later in the book he needs a high society lifestyle. Matejka’s voice, given to Jack, is one of many facets, a history of the man. The way that Matejka creates the quality of each character draws the reader into the collection emotionally.

Historical America, and its oppression, is shown within Matejka’s collection of poems. The question of historical oppression comes to the fore especially in the boxing ring. When Johnson is to fight someone outside of his race the intensity within the poem is turned up, this intensity creates excitement of the material. Aspects of life become more vivid. Reflecting on Jack’s fight, Matejka will focus on minute aspects such as sweat, or the sun, or the insides of a person being pulverized. Even the colors within the poems appear brighter. The glint of Johnson’s gold teeth and the biting language come out, at times tragically so. Adrian’s tone and tenor create a landscape in his poetry that is easy for a reader to agree with, even if the topic itself is difficult, melancholy, or traumatizing. The historical presence throughout brings the collection closer to home, and offers insight to our country in earlier historical times. Matejka’s ability to imagine and relate appear on each page.

The readability of The Big Smoke comes from the theme and the text itself. This by no means suggests that the topics and themes of this collection of poetry are not without significance. The topics within are American made. The All-American rise is at hand. Jack Johnson starts out by declaring his mother is a slave. He comes from this environment. His inspiration is getting ahead, essentially following the American Dream. He rises by fighting for necessity and eventually gaining a reputation as a fighter. The fame and fortune which comes is desirable to the reader. Having a constant underdog lends to the framework of a story immensely. Even while Jack is at the top his internal struggle, with women, with race, with caste systems, create problems for him, by his problems he is easily relatable. This theme would also be less readable had it not come with clever language. Matejka avoids being lumped into a category of poets who use big words to please the pretentious, though he does at times throw in flashy demotic. He also avoids objective history, because what is that? The way he manipulates tenor reflects in the language of Jack Johnson. Jack is clearly beyond the ordinary man, he is powerful, almost super-human, and intelligent. Matejka proves this by alluding to his literary repertoire. He also makes this visible through powerful dialogue, dialogue between Jack and the women in his life, and italicized words which are either assumed direct quotes or mere quick thinking. The Big Smoke allows the reader a mix of close imagery and insightful thought through the use of risqué topics and lean prose.

The Big Smoke presents diverse language on a diverse and difficult topic, racism in America, violence between humans, and the ever pressing framework of a hierarchy. These elements are presented with Matejka’s artful prose. The storytelling and smart verse keeps the reader entrenched and imagining. Realism in imagery and description make a fictional story seem as the real thing. The idea of Jack Johnson as an American underdog, starting with nothing and rising to the top, is one rooted in the American Dream, no matter race. Jack Johnson as a character embodies the trials and tribulations set forth by an oppressive and judgmental society. He goes on to prove that he is the man in charge, though he is the person who ruins himself in the end. This espouses that Jack Johnson was in control, no one controlled him—but he himself. Throughout Matejka’s collection of poetry Jack Johnson is a force to be reckoned with. The Big Smoke is an inspiring and gritty book of poems rooted in the clashes of American history and culture, which speak to the essence of the American Dream.

Work Cited
Matejka, Adrian. The Big Smoke. New York: Penguin Group, 2013. Print.

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