‘The Match’ by Colson Whitehead

The Match by Colson Whitehead, 2019

The magic trick:

Tight plot boundaries with a finite conflict

Culled from the novel The Nickel Boys, “The Match” demonstrates both the perils and plusses of the infamous “excerpt posing as short story” model.

The downside here is fairly obvious. The story introduces several characters who barely register in this format but seem so interesting that they must be explored more in the novel. Likewise, the setting is immensely powerful but gets short shrift in this format.

The good side? “The Match” is a well-defined episode, with clear plot boundaries (a boxing match) and a finite conflict (is the fix in for the match?).

And that’s quite a trick on Whitehead’s part.

(As it is, if I’m picking up a short story about throwing a boxing match, it’ll probably be “Champion” by Ring Lardner; and if I’m picking up a book about characters like this, it’ll probably be The Nickel Boys novel itself. Excerpts are stupid!)

The selection:

The coach for the colored team was a Mississippian named Max David, who worked in the school garage. He got an envelope at the end of the year for imparting what he’d learned during his welterweight stint. Max David made his pitch to Griff early in the summer. “My first fight made me cockeyed,” he said. “And my farewell fight set my eyes right again, so trust me when I say this sport will break you down to make you better, and that’s a fact.” Griff smiled. He pulverized and unmanned his opponents with cruel inevitability through autumn. He was not graceful. He was not a scientist. He was a powerful instrument of violence, and that sufficed.

Given the typical length of enrollment at Nickel, most students were around for only one or two fighting seasons. As the championship approached, the boys had to be schooled in the importance of those December matches—the prelims within your dorm, the matches between your dorm’s best guy and the best sluggers from the other two dorms, and then the bout between the best black fighter and whatever chump the white guys put up. The championship was the boys’ sole acquaintance with justice at Nickel.


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