Author: Whish-Wilson, David
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Rating: 4 stars
This is a genre of book known as narrative nonfiction, which is basically a fiction book based on fact. It can sometimes be discombobulating as the reader is unsure which parts are factual.
The Sawdust House, if you did not know it was narrative nonfiction, you would be forgiven for thinking it was all made up. It is the story of an Irishman who as a child moved to England after his mother was sexually assaulted by an occupying English officer. He was then deported to Australia for a minor offence, before finding his way to the US and becoming a world champion prize fighter.
We meet ‘Yankee’ Sullivan early in the book. He’s in prison in San Francisco after being arrested by the San Francisco Vigilance Movement which had taken control of the city.
The story is narrated by a gay reporter who, while hiding his sexuality, is clearly attracted to Sullivan. The book is set out into days in which Sullivan is interviewed and tells his story to the reporter.
It’s a rollicking good yarn. Author David Whish-Wilson cleverly combines just the right amount of bathos and pathos. Bathos as the mighty Sullivan is reduced to a forlorn figure. An eleven boxing champion who is barely holding on, Sullivan is malnourished and appears resigned to the fact that his days are numbered. The author cleverly builds up suspense, and weaves, what I imagine is a fictional story, of the reporter into the historic tale of Sullivan.
Unusually, the book often uses a separate page for each piece of dialogue between Sullivan and the reporter. So on occasion, there may be only one line of type to a page. This does make it much easier to follow the narrative and to identify the character providing the dialogue.
There are certainly some tough passages to read, especially Sullivan’s treatment as a convict, both on his voyage to, and time in the then penal colony of Australia. The description of the death of Sullivan’s first wife is no less harrowing, and will have many reaching for the tissues.
The byplay between Sullivan’s second wife, who we meet while her husband is incarcerated, and the reporter is some of the best writing in the book. It introduces an undercurrent of sexual intrigue and provides an insight into how difficult life was for a woman in the mid-nineteenth century.
The author also reproduces some newspaper articles about Sullivan the boxer. His training methods and the style of bare knuckle boxing at the time appear to be quite a different sport to the high profile business it has become.
The Sawdust House – is an engrossing read, so much so that I could hardly put it down. That it is based on historical events makes it all the more poignant. It inspired me to read up on Sullivan, who apart from his sobriquet of ‘Yankee’ I knew little. I am sure in true Aussie style we can claim him as one of our own.
This is a first class book written by a talented author and is highly recommended.