Talking with . . .

Joe Monninger
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    SEVERAL YEARS AGO I came across a novel entitled The Viper Tree written by an RPCV, Joe Monninger, who served in Burkina Faso. My wife, who has no connection to the Peace Corps and just tolerates my fascination with Peace Corps writers, spotted the book and said, “Joe Monninger! He’s cute.” So that was my first introduction to Joe Monninger who wrote for a magazine my wife edited, and that is where she met him — she spotted him in the halls of her office.
         Having never met Joe — and having no idea of just how “cute” he was, I did contact Joe a few years later and asked if he would participate in a reading by RPCVs at Harvard University — and that is when he and I met.
         Recently I heard from Steerforth Press that Joe had a book coming out about the boxer Two Ton Tony Galento. Being a boxing fan, I contacted Joe about his book, his career, the Peace Corps, and surprising, his love of sled dogs. Here’s what Joe had to say.

    Joe, talk first about your Peace Corps experience.
    From 1975 to 1977 I was a well digger near the village of Tenado in what was then called Upper Volta. Now we know the country as Burkina Faso.
         I returned to Mali in 1978, this time with U.S.A.I.D..

    When you returned to Mali what did you do?
    I didn’t stay long. A project out by Mopti fizzled. I found myself sitting in a house with little to do. I also nearly died in a car accident. A Land Rover slipped off the dirt road while the driver was going about eighty miles per hour and I was in the passenger seat. I woke up with blood all over me and was taken and placed in a bed with a dead man. It’s a long story, but I decided to come home.

    Have you traveled elsewhere in Africa?
    Not nearly as much as I’d like. I went to Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire and Togo between my first and second year of Peace Corps service. And I returned to America across the desert — Mali, Senegal, then up to Mauritania, Spanish Sahara and Morocco. I love Africa. I still think of it often, and sometimes I smell a wood fire and it transports me back.

    How did you get started as a published writer?
    I finished third in the 1978 Redbook Short Story contest. That gave me a start. Agents contacted me and I adapted my story, A Slice of It, into a novel titled The Family Man. It was published by Atheneum/Scribner. After that I published novels regularly with Antheneum. New Jersey, Second Season, The Summer Hunt. I published The Viper Tree, a novel about Africa and witchcraft, with Simon & Schuster. I also published a mystery and a thriller with Don I. Fine. Then I had a golden retriever who got sick, and I took off for a summer to fly fish with her. I wrote a non-fiction proposal and Chronicle Books bought it. The book was called Home Waters. They also bought a non fiction book about renovating a barn, A Barn in New England — which was an account of fixing up my house where I live now with my wife, Wendy, and my son, Justin.
         Along the way I wrote articles for American Heritage, Sports Illustrated and the Boston Globe. A bunch of places. I publish fiction now and then in small journals and from time to time in Ellery Queen. I just sold a young adult novel to Front Street Books, a wonderful publisher. The novel is called Baby and it focuses on dog sledding.

    How did you sell a young adult novel?
    I was recommended to the publisher by a friend. It turned out to be the fastest purchase I have experienced as a writer. I sent it via email one afternoon and the editor bought it that evening. That never happens, but it did this once. It’s a novel about a girl who goes to live with a foster family in New Hampshire. And the family drives dogs. My son is an excellent musher. We run a four-dog team back behind our house several times a week. So, I knew about dogs. The novel was easy to write because of that. And, of course, I loved Jack London and Call of the Wild as a boy.

    Where does your involvement with dog sledding come from?
    An old railroad bed runs behind our house. It’s flat and straight and perfect for dog sledding. People ran their teams there. My son used to jump the fence and go help them. One day a wonderful couple, Bob and Julie Noyes of Vermont, asked him if he wanted to run a team. He came flying back to the house and asked if he could. My wife and I went over and met the Noyes and they were terrific — fun loving, and crazy about dogs. They taught us everything we know. In 2003, if I remember correctly, my son — who was 13 at the time — won the New England 4 dog sportsmen class. He beat a lot of adults. He has a natural feeling for being on a sled. And he loves the dogs.

    Do you raise sled dogs?
    No. All our dogs came to us from the Noyes. We have their second team, as it were. They have much stronger, faster dogs than we do. Our dogs have become pets at this point. We bring them in every night and let them run in the backyard. Iditarod teams require kennels of 50–100 dogs. We have no interest in an operation that large. And now, as my son is getting older, we are winding down. He has other interests and that’s as it should be.

    Lets talk about your new book. How did you come to choose a fighter like Two Ton Tony Galento as a subject for a book?
    Galento is bigger than life, of course, as the saying goes. He had a great appetite for life. I first saw Galento on TV in the ’70s. I was with my dad and we were watching a fight, an old black and white film, and I laughed at Galento’s chubbiness. My dad said, wait a second and watch, and Galento knocked someone down . . . probably Louis. Growing up in New Jersey, I always heard rumors about Galento . . . that he fought a bear, and a kangaroo, and so on. Turns out most of the rumors were true.
         But what finally drew me to Galento’s story was the poignancy of coming so close to pulling off such an upset, but ultimately failing. We have lots of stories about underdogs’ victories. But Galento tried and lost yet redeemed something in himself. He was a joke, and a comic figure to many people — yet he almost beat the best heavyweight of his day.
         And finally, it is probably true that we can say this moment defined Galento. It’s rare we can point to a single night in a man’s life and say, there, that’s the pinnacle of his aspiration. Galento probably never thought about it that way, but everything up to that moment crystallized in the ring; and everything afterward reflected back to that moment.

    Do you think Tony fought for the money or was he just a natural brawler?
    Both, probably. He made good money from fighting. He cleared something like $40,000 for the Louis fight at a time when school teachers made maybe a thousand or two a year. But he also fought through the ’20s and ’30s as a young guy picking up a buck here, a buck there. Boxing brought notoriety. He became a figure in Orange and Newark. His name still resonates there with the older citizens. They named a street near the railroad station after him. So, I think he fought for a combination of reasons.

    Fairly early in his career Tony had the money to buy a bar and make a living that way. Why do you think he continued boxing?
    Probably, again, for the notoriety. I learned recently — after the book was put to bed — that Tony also ran booze. People shouted down to him when he arrived with ice “give me a one and a one.” That would mean, one block of ice, one pint of booze. He made good money that way. And the bar did quite well, although he was extravagant and a bit reckless with his money. His wife, Mary Grasso, ran the business well and worked like crazy on it. But, again, he had higher aspirations. Although he might not have articulated it, he wanted to make a name for himself, rise above his surroundings. To a great extent, he succeeded.

    Was there any racial reason involving Joe Louis to explain why the fight was held in Yankee Stadium rather than Madison Square Gardens?
    Not that I know about. The Galento team wanted the fight in Philadelphia. They felt, with reason, that the fight would have sold better there. The year before, when Tony went to Philly to prepare for a fight against a light heavyweight named Lewis, half a million people met him at the train station and paraded him through the town. It’s hard to imagine a half million people spontaneously coming out for any sports figure today. Joe Louis, of course, was loved in Harlem and across the nation by black citizens. His management team saw Philly as a place where Galento might have an edge. They were comfortable in Yankee Stadium and they hoped to pack it.

    Tony was not the only fighter to drop Louis. What makes his knockdown so special?
    Louis did seem prone to a left hook. Braddock and Jack Roper both knocked him silly with a left. And Max Schmeling got him with an overhand right. Galento, though, seemed such an unlikely candidate. He hardly trained; he smoked and stayed out late and drank beer. In fact, some people contend Tony was drunk when he fought Louis. It was almost as if he personified the average fellow in the stands stepping into the ring to fight the best heavyweight around. Most observers say Galento’s hardest punch came in the first round when he drove Louis to the ropes. People identified with Galento. He used to travel around with Babe Ruth and play Santa Claus. Galento was sort of your crazy uncle Charlie, or your brother-in-law who made you laugh at the family Thanksgiving dinner.

    Was there any hint of mob connections to Tony when he was fighting? The mob was involved with a lot of fighters.
    Sure. He won eleven fights in a row before fighting Louis, and a few of the fights seemed arranged, if not entirely fixed. He might have beaten those fighters anyway, but the money was in building his reputation for the Louis bout. The stereotype of boxers and gangsters hanging around together has a solid foundation. Tony did not stand on ethical niceties. At one point he was banned from fighting in Michigan after a dust up in Detroit. But a fighter can only sell his time in the ring, and only when people are interested. So, like most fighters, Tony did what he had to do to maximize his leverage.

    Tony was tightfisted; had a mean temper; had a reputation as a dirty fighter; went through managers like he was changing clothes and deliberately insulted his opponents. Louis (later) said he had “charisma.” Why do you like him?
    He seems human to me. He seems entirely flawed and yet his pleasure in living redeems him for me. He also had a generous streak where he would give a thousand bucks to a relative stranger. I grew up in New Jersey and knew some fellows like Tony. The popularity of The Sopranos touches on the same thing. We don’t admire Tony Soprano, exactly, but we understand him as a human. Plus, his world is humorous. He takes big bites.

    What was his sister-in-law Mildred’s candid opinion of Tony?
    She said he was complicated, but somewhat brutal. I learned recently that Tony got a motorcycle early in his career, and when he brought it home, his father took a pipe to it and destroyed it. A brand new motorcycle. Tony came from somewhere; he didn’t drop out of the sky. Mildred thought his fights were exciting and one of the highlights of her life. But she had no delusions about Tony the man. He was rough and self centered. He was also sentimental and generous at times. She didn’t think Tony was particularly nice to her husband, Russell. And yet Tony also possessed a certain glamour. He gave hope to people who didn’t have much hope. He loved everyday men and women and didn’t place himself above the regular joes. Also, he often visited charities and contributed his time. So, like most of us, he had his demons and angels.

    Are you a boxing fan?
    No, not really. I loved Ali, like a million other middle aged guys. Ali and Galento remind me of each other. Both clowned. Both boasted and used ballyhoo to get them places they might not have gotten otherwise. Ali, naturally, had gifts far beyond Galento’s as a boxer, but both captured the same American audience. They were brazen and funny and maybe could back up their big mouths – or not. Ali, of course, became immortal in a way. Galento is a footnote in boxing history, but a funny one, and one that makes people smile when you mention him.
         But boxing now. No, I’ll follow a big championship match, but I’m not a fan. Not in an everyday sort of way. It’s an awfully vicious way to make a living. And, of course, we only see the stars after their careers are over. We never see interviews of the boxers who lost more than they won. The stars fare badly enough; the second rung boxers are another story altogether.
         All that said, boxing still holds a fascination for me and many others. Its drama, its ferocity, its clean brutality. I recently read A.J. Liebling’s boxing accounts from the New Yorker. They capture the humor, the pathos, the joy of the whole crazy world. It’s painful and funny and human. That’s’ why boxing still goes on and why we still watch it. If you think about it, the great boxing matches were great narratives. The reason we get excited by an Ali vs. Foreman fight, or a Tyson vs. Holyfield fight, is the narrative power behind them. Two stories, one for each fighter, braid together in the ring. But to watch a fighter you don’t know fight another fighter you don’t know . . . that’s like watching a football game late at night when you don’t know either team. You have no narrative to follow and it becomes far less interesting. As crazy as it sounds, wrestling has always understood the power of narrative. We want to see the Hulk fight someone else. We know it’s phony, but the narrative isn’t. So, that’s a long answer, but I am only interested in any sport when the narrative is compelling.

    So you came to this subject matter because of the person?
    That’s right. This really wasn’t a book on boxing, but a book on a man. Let’s face it, non-fiction authors are combing the internet and everywhere else for interesting stories. I know I keep my ear to the ground. Galento is an intriguing character, and the late 1930s are fascinating. But sports, sure, they provide a clear narrative. I used to read Chip Hilton, All-American novels. Chip would always win in the end. We don’t go to sports to be entertained, but to see people live out a moment in their lives. I still grieve for Bill Buckner . . . a great, great player, who will have to live in infamy — at least among Red Sox fans — for the remainder of his days. If it’s just a game, it shouldn’t hurt so much.

    How do you write? Do you work on a computer? Do you do a lot of drafts?
    I write standing at an old foreman’s desk with a good view of the dogs outside. I could watch them for hours. I write as many drafts as I need, and, yes, I use a laptop. Like any craftsman, we probably get better as we get older. A young mason doesn’t build a fence as quickly or surely as an old one, despite the fact that his strength is greater. I have a pretty good sense of narrative at this point. But Two Ton, with all the research, took three years. I wrote an entire manuscript and had to chuck it because I didn’t know what I was writing about. I knew enormous amounts about the era and about Galento, but I hadn’t done the tough job of asking myself why it counted. When I finally discovered it, the manuscript shrunk and I arrived at the technique for narrating Two Ton. I hope it works.

    Do you write full time?
    I’ve never been able to earn my living as a writer — not exclusively. But I have always been writing full time, so to speak.

    How did you get this book published?
    Actually, I sent the proposal to Alan Lelchuk. Lelchuk is a great novelist and is an advisor to Steerforth Press. I met Lelchuk in an interesting way. When I was a grad student at University of New Hampshire I grabbed one of his books off the Diamond Library shelves. I had never heard of him, but the novel, American Mischief, looked interesting. I read his novel and was bowled over by it. I went on to read a bunch of his work. Then one day our Department Chair, Mike Deport, said his old friend, Alan Lelchuk, was planning a visit to UNH and did anyone want him to speak to a class? I was teaching comp at the time, but I quickly yanked Lelchuk into class. He turned out to be a great guy. He also had an interest in boxing, and New York and New Jersey, so when I wrote the proposal for Two Ton, I sent it to him. He liked it and sent it along to Chip Fleisher, the editor at Steerforth who eventually agreed to publish it. That’s how the book reached print.

    Did you sell this book or do you have an literary agency?
    I am with Sterling-Lord Literistic and have been for many years.

    What are you working on now?
    I’m working on another Young Adult novel. I am also looking at a few other sports stories. I’m also thinking about building a barn in my back yard. That’s not a novel, but it’s not entirely dissimilar. You have to plan and you have to do research.

    Have you ever written or thought about writing about your Peace Corps experience?
    I wrote a few short stories about being in the Peace Corps, or at least in Africa, and The Viper Tree, the novel I mentioned, is based in West Africa. I read somewhere that an author shied away from writing about his Peace Corps experience because it was so easy, in a way. The events are so vivid and unfamiliar that it seems like cheating a little. Of course, that’s nonsense to a great degree, but I know what he meant. I worry about the Peace Corps experience becoming my World War II stories . . . an old guy sitting on a bar stool and boring people around him with his adventures. So the answer to the question is, no, I haven’t.

    What advice would you give to an RPCV who wanted to write?
    One of the great — and somewhat frightening — realities about the Peace Corps experience is that it can force isolation on a person. It’s exhausting to be in another culture all day, every day. And speaking a second language makes it even more tiring. I never read as deeply, nor wrote with such concentration, as I did during my Peace Corps stint. Part of that was due to isolation. So, if someone serves in the Peace Corps, and is at all pushed to write, she or he is likely drawn to contemplation anyway. Given that character trait, the only thing to do is to write. I always imagine any good artist’s studio . . . all the wood shavings and plaster dust, and half finished figures. If we can think of writing like that, as an on going work, some good, some failed, some provoking us to better efforts, then occasionally achieving a satisfying result, we will be prepared mentally for a writing life. At the same time, writing must have a shape. We can certainly keep a journal all our life and many people do. But if we are interested in a publishing career, one that produces books and articles and stories, then we must give thought to the dimension of a book, the potential audience for a written work. So, write, but don’t be oblivious to what a reader might expect from a book. Ernest Hebert, a fine New Hampshire novelist, once said the biggest obstacle we face as writers is the excuse we give ourselves that we will do it better next time. It’s a lie we tell ourselves. This one we are working on, it’s pretty good, but the next one, the next book or story or article — that will be the real proof of our abilities. That’s a comfortable excuse and it let’s us off the hook. No, do it now, prove it now, do your best now. Give it everything. That’s the only way to go at it, I think.

    Well said, Joe. Thank you for your time. And good luck with Two Ton . When will Steerforth Press publish the book?
    It is in bookstore now, as they say.