Cover image for The real McCoy
The real McCoy
Strauss, Darin.
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Publication Information:
New York : Dutton, [2002]

Physical Description:
326 pages ; 22 cm
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The New York Times Book Reviewcalled Chang and Eng, Darin Strauss's extraordinary debut novel, "a spirited story of heroic longing." Joyce Carol Oates called it "a remarkable first of the most riskily imagined and successfully realized novels I've read in years." Now this uncommonly gifted storyteller brings us another strikingly original novel. Are you the Real McCoy? Loosely based on the real life of a turn-of-the-century icon and charlatan, The Real McCoyintroduces a character like no other in recent contemporary fiction. "Kid" McCoy was a man of many talents and faces: championship boxer, jewel thief, scam artist, and grifter extraordinaire. Unfolding against the tumultuous backdrop of history, his story becomes a fascinating mirror of the times as he moves from city to city in pursuit of the next con, always living life as he becomes a legend and a symbol of all that's true in America. An audacious and unforgettable novel about identity, illusion, and the search for love, The Real McCoyis bound to become another literary sensation.

Author Notes

Graduate of the New York University Creative Writing Program. Strauss is now a teacher in the program and lives in New York City.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Like his acclaimed first novel, Chang and Eng (2000), Strauss takes a curious historical footnote and carves from it a sprawling, quirky, and delightful story. It's the end of the nineteenth century, and Kid McCoy--a small-time boxer long past his prime--comes to young Virgil Selby's town. McCoy is beaten so badly that he dies. Virgil drags the dying man to the forest, learns the location of Kid McCoy's next fight, and then--poof--becomes Kid McCoy. Kid, nee Virgil, ends up in a Chinese railroad worker community, where he meets Johnny Gold, a first-rate flimflam man with a habit of not finishing his . . . McCoy and Gold team up, and eventually McCoy cons his way to a world boxing title, becoming the toast of New York society and the proverbial real McCoy. There is, of course, nothing real about McCoy, and the continuing intrusion of his old identity wrecks each of his many marriages to the lovely but fickle Susan. Sprinkled with the phraseology and energy of turn-of-the-century America, this is the story of a real American dream, one where big plans and a laid-back conscience lead to linguistic immortality, if not happiness. --John Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

Strauss follows a brilliant debut novel (Chang and Eng) with more fictive doctoring of history in this daring, unique reenactment of the life of reed-thin, bone-weary Virgil Selby, who came to be known as Kid McCoy: a talented turn-of-the-century boxer, professional flimflammer and bigamist. The book opens with a bogus charity benefit exhibition boxing match on the first night of the new millennium (1900) as Kid McCoy fights and defeats welterweight champ Tommy Ryan, garnering the crown for himself. The narrative backtracks several years as McCoy, a young runaway still developing his boxing form, meets Johnnie Gold, a philosophical Chinese grifter who initiates McCoy into a life of swindling and deceit, peddling snake oil remedies and betting on fixed horse races. Lonely at times, McCoy settles on a timid department store clerk, and though he's not in love, he marries her, if only to test his new powers of flimflam. When he moves to Manhattan, vaudeville actress Susan Fields catches his eye and they quickly marry, just in time for a spectacular rematch with Tommy Ryanwhich is set up for McCoy to win but backfires, sending McCoy into a depression compounded by an unexpected visit from his father. Several championship fights, another marriage and a cinematic jewel heist later, McCoy emerges as the defeated narrator of his own madcap tale. Apart from the book's awkwardly shifting time line (a device that too often steals McCoy's thunder), this book is well written, comprehensively researched, and stylish, sure to score at the cash register. The big question on fans' lips: Whom will Strauss consecrate next? (June) Forecast: Nothing can trump the Siamese twins of Chang and Eng in the attention-getting department, but the many literary devotees of boxing will be captivated by this book, as will fans of Strauss's very successful first novel. A six-figure marketing campaign, including radio advertising in New York, and a 10-city author tour should help ensure strong sales for this sophomore effort. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Set in brawling turn-of-the-century New York, Strauss's second novel (after Chang and Eng) is loosely based on the life of boxer Norman "Kid McCoy" Selby, whose nom de guerre is one of the possible sources of the title's catch phrase. The product of an unhappy Indiana childhood, Selby (called Virgil Selby here) takes the name of a fighter he has let die following a match. After some lessons in swindling from a Chinese flimflam artist named Johnny Gold, the self-created McCoy moves to New York, soon winning the welterweight title by virtue of a scam. The title brings him fame and the love of his life, stage actress Susan Fields, and, in an ironic twist central to the novel, turns him into that great emblem of authenticity, "the real McCoy." Fascinating in its exploration of the multiple facets of Selby's personality, this is a powerful and heartbreakingly American tale of identity and loss, marred only by Strauss's somewhat didactic use of his protagonist as a symbol of societal change. Recommended for all public libraries. [For an interview with Strauss, see p. 97.] Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Real McCoy? September 1895 You can't understand McCoy without this: The nation he hustled was closer in time and temper to the War of 1812 than to your automatic age. A backwater, America looked darn like the mind of the average flimflammer-blemished wild places, a hissing brier patch where dark fruit grows, serpents underfoot. That was his era. Now picture the young battler almost five years before he conned Ryan-a boy locomoting one late night to his first-ever match as McCoy, across a stretch of Indian land dirty with sassafras and only recently made available for settlement by whites. Eleven-fifteen P.M. on the Texas Oklahoma Railroad bound for Elk City, Oklahoma. Nobody aboard had any notion where they were headed, but anyway the train car was full to bursting. This red-eye to Elk City never'd been so popular before. He sat up front, just sixteen, a near-confident slant to his grimace, even with his gray teeth. Virgil Selby-oh, wait, he's McCoy tonight, he'd almost forgot again-held himself apart from the grown-up strangers on every side and he squinted, firing a pug's looks at these nameless men off hog farms or assembly plants, the late-evening passengers carrying the work smells of wide homesteads or of new industries, everyone looking forward to an event that would lift his week a little-the factory night-manager on secret shift-break next to the suspender-wearing prairiebilly struggling to keep his eyes open, herdsmen and tilemakers, lawyers in bow ties and someone who wore a janitor's blue livery, most of these men hard faced in the fashion of that old century, sitting together under the chance meeting of their enthusiasms, traveling God-knows-where to witness a fistfight this ridiculous hour on a Tuesday. And McCoy, barely there in his neat seersucker suit, not even the 145 pounds he claimed, sunk down among them but invisible as if wrapped in a cloud, just a kid with money stolen from his sleeping father, but secretly he was also the attraction that packed this train full. His schoolboy straw hat shook around his skinny head, his cheeks swelled with tobacco, and his shoe-leather boots frayed at the heels-while beneath that hayseed getup were hidden boxing trunks, the canvas footgear of the ring, and a mysterious urge to mask any clue that he was the battler everyone was taking the trouble to see. At the same time he wanted more than anything to be known by the whole world. Extreme oddness sometimes makes a hero. His head ached. He'd been McCoy for exactly one day. Chewing tobacco had him nauseous. Then someone said, "You're McCoy?" and the cloud around the boy parted. Childlike McCoy shone in the electric light, head and shoulders and youthful eyes all gentle. Now again: "You're McCoy?" The bald man asking was Dick Nibs, boxing promoter. Dick Nibs liked to dance around the laws that banned prizefighting in 1895, and so was keeping the location of tonight's fight a secret-even from the fighters themselves. (People had been told in a whisper to meet at 11:00 P.M. Tuesday at the railway station.) "I'm McCoy, yes." The skinny kid's voice broke when it touched the fiction. And the train rattled like a tubercular old man, coughing its way down jagged tracks. Dick Nibs patted McCoy's shoulder but kept his eyes down as if he were filching the kid's wallet; he missed the sight of a boy graceless at spitting into a cup. Try as McCoy might to look collected, his excitement showed plainly across his sloppy chin and danced over the stage of his face. Dick Nibs, meanwhile, owned a face with little use for features beyond the essentials-his drab smile had almost nothing in the way of lips to outline it; his cheeks slid into his neck just fine without the hitch of a visible jawline. This strict blankness helped call attention to eyes wild like spun gyroscopes. "Why're you dressed like that, McCoy?" Nibs said. "Dressed like a normal person?" "Oh, well, I-" "Look at that other guy." Dick Nibs pointed out a man some six rows back who wore only a robe and trunks, a man flanked by backslappers. "The sensible way your opponent's dressed." McCoy's shirtless rival was a deaf-mute whose ring name-and this is how 1895 treated a deaf-mute-was Deaf-Mute. An expert Oklahoma middleweight with experience, the mute was the bettor's choice, a local hero; even sitting he was taller than McCoy, thicker by half, scowling as if weaned on lemons. His huge fists hinted at what pain lay ahead. A blue tattoo tiger in fading ink roared frozen on his chest. No one knows who I am , thought McCoy. Not even the Selby I was yesterday, even he don't know in any real magnitude. (Extreme oddness.) I can beat this deaf-mute, or any man. Make myself someone finer. "I'm a fellow for the most lawful existence, truly," said Dick Nibs. "What I really do, I write steamship romances. I can see maybe you're like that, some other besides a fighter at heart. But Deaf-Mute"-here Dick Nibs lowered his voice and made McCoy feel far from home-"this guy fought a kangaroo once. Knocked him out in thirteen." "Okay," McCoy said. The promoter's eyes narrowed. "You're a reedy bastard, you are-all I'm saying." He scratched his hair. "You know, I seen you fight one time, seen you in Frisco, and I'm not sure. I guess-" There were train lights flashing in the window. The far side of the blinking pane was a purple scene of swaying woodlands and little lakes sinking into darkness. Finally Dick Nibs figured out how to finish his sentence. "-I guess at that time you looked a much bigger man than you look now, McCoy. A much bigger man. Older, I would have guessed. Certainly you was older." "I'm McCoy." "Yeah, but are you the real McCoy?" First time anyone had said it. They pulled into Elk City at midnight. None of the confused fidgety crowd knew what to do once they found themselves under the raw night sky. McCoy stood eyeing the freakish tall opponent beside him on the cold platform. Deaf-Mute had the movements of a natural-born puncher-the loose intuitive shamble from one foot to the next, the lift of a muscled arm that cut the shortest path to scratch his nose-it made McCoy feel wobbled in the legs. What he failed to understand about himself was that even in those days he had more energy than most anybody. He'd been bouncing on his toes for half an hour without realizing. There was some mysterious delay, some problem Nibs wasn't sharing with anyone else. The weather threatened. Low dark clouds were opening in strange contours. Angry men in the crowd started to call Dick Nibs "his nibs Dick Nibs," and questioned if there was even going to be a fight: "Rain's coming." "It's cold." "And late." "C'mon, McCoy!" Dick Nibs grabbed our kid-and also the deaf-mute-and pushed the two fighters off the platform. "C'mon, boys!" Decades of fight promoting had charred Dick Nibs's bourbon baritone down to a single note. " That's who's fighting Deaf-Mute?" This was the shrill voice of one stranger's doubt. Another: "That skinny kid is McCoy?" And Deaf-Mute was smiling. His moldy slug-colored eyes showed an ember of life. Deaf-Mute must not have known he'd outweigh his opponent by at least fifty pounds. McCoy tried to empty his mouth of tobacco with a spit that was nearer to an upchuck. Meanwhile Dick Nibs was shoving the fighters toward a wooden rowboat that bobbed at the edge of black Lake Pinckney. "There, right there," he said. In the boat sat an oarman who showed a long red scar across his jaw. "Off you go," Dick Nibs said, then he started humming. The promoter's plan had been this: As there were felony charges for setting up a prizefight in Oklahoma-in fact, known Elk City deputy sheriffs had been riding the 11:15 behind McCoy in flimsy disguise, following up on rumors of likely pugilism-Dick Nibs asked people to pay "for a ride across the river and nothing more." He'd provided several flatboats, and for two dollars fifty in this dead of night, spectators could buy a perfectly legal round-trip to Colorado, where a boxing match would happen to take place, "free of charge." Unfortunately most of the boats hadn't shown yet-none of the spectators could get across. It was a damp half-past midnight. There must have been stars, and a guiding moon, but in McCoy's memory the night would always be a wondrous strange dark. He could barely make out Deaf-Mute now. Their rowboat shuddered with the rude current. Some quarter mile on the other side of the river, Colorado slept. Holding on to both sides of the boat, Deaf-Mute leaned in to whisper to McCoy: "Crossing the river-to Colorado, or to the graveyard-the toll's the same." His robe didn't hide the violence of his body. "It's the same goddamn trip." And he winked, his huge packs of muscle jumping at even this smallest of gestures. The wet floor planks troubled young McCoy's feet through his shoes. The boat slogged in fits because the water seemed like quicksand. McCoy shuddered. Maybe this phony mute would kill him. Just off the Colorado shore was a long-abandoned amusement park, the years-dark Robert Kay's Famous Belmont Grounds, a set of wooden husks against the moon. Here a desolate, broken roller coaster looked like a dinosaur's skeleton in a museum, there a Ferris wheel without its benches was a giant dried dandelion with the seed-fluff blown off. The old rowboat came to a hissing stop against the shore. A rotted tree near the waterline bowed in the wind, shy about its leaflessness. Farther up from the beach, near boarded-up rides and the few standing ticket stalls, Dick Nibs had pitched a ring across an old dance floor, canvas over some hardwood that buckled as if the ring had crash-landed onto it. (This was the state of affairs back then: boxers fought in barns across the nation; on barges afloat little rivers that traced county lines; in forests where it was warm, and inside closed-up resorts where it wasn't; in storehouses, deserted strip mines, back alleyways, in concert halls-one famous slug-out took place on a peaceable Long Island beach, so near to the water's edge that the boxers squared off thigh-deep in ocean after the tide rolled in to open the forty-first round.) Inside the makeshift ring-with torch flames ducking in each corner-McCoy stripped to his minks and started shadowboxing. He expected his opponent to make fun of his skinniness, badmouth his prominent ribs at least, but Deaf-Mute had gone back into his mute act. With his tremendous power Deaf-Mute waggled his head, showed the breadth of his shoulders, his great arms and legs, and threw punches against the turnbuckle. McCoy shuffled on the balls of his wet, stockinged feet. He did this for quite a while. Oklahoma was far off, nothing to see in its direction but dark river-and he tried not to think about the sister, the half-sisters, half-brother, or the lonely father he'd just left, or about his mother who'd "departed," as McCoy called it. Some of his only memories of his mother: Her elegant hands wrinkled by the soap water of washing clothes for a large family. Her careful laying of a poultice, slathered in apple paste, along her weeping son's furiously bee-stung back and neck on a bright summer morning.... No, McCoy tried not to worry over any of this, nor who he'd become nor how he'd gotten here. But, oh, how stupid that he was going to fight Deaf-Mute, or anybody! The promoter Dick Nibs arrived on his own skiff. "The other boats are taking too long, boys." Nibs raked his fingers through what was left of his hair. "I got to quit this most shady existence and get to my romances." And he started moaning tunefully. Rumor had it that Dick Nibs had gone around the bend of late. He'd fallen into humming. Energetic, demanding humming-operas and old polkas, little-known carols and popular ditties, and finally arabesque melodies of his own imagining. An hour went by before the flatboats started one by one to bring ticket holders into the dim faltering torchlight. McCoy kept right on shadowboxing. The night was sunk so low in anticipation that the men who came off the boats propped the sky on their heads. Everyone began to gather, stranger-to-stranger, edgy around the ring. Few of these spectators even acknowledged one another. But nearing dawn on a weeknight, they all pressed close, hours from their bedrooms, needing to be here, in the dampish air that promised rain. In this chilly darkish forgotten wreck of an amusement park. To watch the local hero Deaf-Mute beat to death a skinny nobody who called himself McCoy. Among the crowd wandered a pickpocket hired by Dick Nibs, a fleshy kid about McCoy's age. And there was a woman-only one woman in the whole crowd, a redhead who, even tramping in the mud, showed a posture certain females can work at for years and never get right; she swayed at the hips like a human metronome. True, with those narrow shoulders and missing one side tooth, she was not half the woman that McCoy's three-time wife Susan Fields would be. But he fell in love with her right there-this redhead as welcome now as a blade of grass from home, as his backyard, as the wide prairie he grew up on. She was eyeing him the way an orphan eyes a home-cooked meal. But the boy had other things to think about. McCoy kept as quiet as his enormous opponent. He jabbed the air, summoning up pictures of targets: solar plexus, throat, head. He felt weary and cold and had almost no breath left. A kid like McCoy, however, didn't know to shadowbox half-speed. Some torchlight, shoved down by the wind, pointed at him like a shaking finger. How could I have done the evil thing I did to get here , McCoy thought, and not expect bad consequences for me? The men in this spreading crowd began to look one like every other-old and young, homesteader or city father-the same hot-eyed cruelty in each grimace. They were thick-coming now, these men like a tribe of nomads. Continue... Excerpted from THE REAL McCOY by DARIN STRAUSS Copyright © 2002 by Darin Strauss Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.