A novel like a bullet train
Michael Farris Smith, author of the gritty, riveting novel The Fighter, credits two big influences for his decision to become a fiction writer after returning to his native Mississippi.
The first, he says in a call to his rented writing studio in Water Valley, Mississippi, was his decision to leave Mississippi and work in Switzerland and France after college. “It’s a cliché to say it changed me, but it changed my life,” he says. “I was just sort of drifting around. I didn’t have any passion for anything. But there I felt connected, and it got me out of old habits.”
In high school and college, Smith was not much of a reader. His interest was in competitive sports. But in the cafés of Paris and on trains riding to work, he began to read the classics of modern American literature—Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and, later, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. He saw connections between his own experiences and the internal experiences described by those writers.
For Smith, who now lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, who works as a social worker, and their two school-age daughters, the other big influence was “when I discovered Larry Brown, the Oxford firefighter-turned-novelist. What I found was many similarities between him and myself. His characters, the things that drove them, the choices they made. I knew the back roads he was talking about. I knew the problems those characters were having, and the thought occurred to me that I have plenty to write about if I want to write.”
The setting for The Fighter, Smith’s fourth work of fiction, is the vividly described poor, rural towns and back roads scattered throughout the Mississippi Delta. In the opening section—“Round One”—Jack Boucher is driving alone on one of those roads in the dark, planning to repay his large debt to an unforgiving fight and vice promoter named Big Momma Sweet. Jack, well into middle age, is past the tail end of a long career of cage fighting, a brutal, bare-fisted full-contact sport.
Jack is filled with a sense of urgency to save the land that his foster mother Maryann, the first of several real and imagined guardian angels, entrusted to him but which he has allowed to pass into foreclosure. In a lovely preamble and throughout the novel, we learn how Maryann took in and nurtured Jack, who was abandoned as an infant and spent years in and out of miserable foster homes before coming to Maryann. She is now near death, and Smith describes the visits between Jack and Maryann with great empathy.
“I think the relationship between Jack and Maryann is the most tender relationship I’ve written in my novels,” Smith says. “I came upon emotions while writing the novel that I was really surprised by. My first instinct was to back away. But then I just really wanted to embrace it. There is something of a miracle for both Jack and her in that relationship.”
Also on the road that dark night is a beautiful 23-year-old carnival worker named Annette. She is traveling with the Outlaw Carnival, a group of mostly ex-cons and grifters. Her particular talent is cheating customers who bet on the strange configurations of her tattoos. She is a lost and searching young woman, or as Smith says, “Annette is using this church of coincidence in her own theology to help herself believe that there is an answer for her somewhere.”
The fateful coincidence that really launches the convergence of these two lost souls is when Annette and the carnival boss happen upon the steaming wreck of Jack’s truck and an envelope of money, but no Jack. From there the story unfolds with velocity.
“I came upon emotions while writing the novel that I was really surprised by. My first instinct was to back away.”
“Writing The Fighter was the most momentum-filled experience I’ve ever had writing a novel,” Smith says. “I sat down in September or October, and in March it was done. It was a bullet train. I just never looked up. And I loved it. It taught me about what work ethic and consistency can do. I just couldn’t wait to get there in the morning. It had that propulsion and that energy. But it also absolutely exhausted me. The issues I dealt with in The Fighter—the subject matter and the intensity of it—really drained me emotionally.”
For a reader, a singular pleasure of this novel is Smith’s use of language. It is both hard-edged and lyrical. “My father is a Southern Baptist Preacher,” Smith says. “I think the lyricism of the language had a lot to do with growing up in the church and being around gospel music all the time. The power and imagery of that music really influenced me.”
Also because of his father’s work, Smith “lived in a bunch of different places in Mississippi,” and his previous novels explore some of those places. More recently, he’s “gotten to know the Delta. It’s such an interesting place. When I had that image of Jack Boucher driving through the night, I thought, I know where he’s going. He’s going to the Delta.”
In The Fighter, Smith writes about a violent and unforgiving world. And yet there is also grace and, in the end, the possibility of mercy. “I know people talk about my work as dark and being about the downtrodden,” Smith says. “Well, there are a lot of downtrodden people walking around. There’s a tremendous divide between the rich and the poor, and it’s growing. But we are all looking for an answer. I know The Fighter is fierce, but I think the book is about hope. I always respond to dark and bleak nature with the idea that there is hope.”