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The Slur Test

The Slur Test

The Slur Test: Please Say Good-Bye, Brandon Rios

On Saturday night longshot-underdog Brandon Rios fought Danny Garcia and did what the oddsmakers said he’d do—he lost, knocked down and called out in the ninth.

Bam Bam Rios has always been a fan-friendly fighter, who usually goes balls-to-the wall for as long as he can. Some fighters claim they’ll only go out on their shields; Rios does. He’s stepped into the ring 39 times. And each time he has put himself in harm’s way so he can administer harm. Rios is not a boxer but a brawler. And brawlers take punches. And in his last eight fights, Rios has been in wars where, even when he won, he was beaten—his triple-feature with Mike Alvarado starred blood and brutality; his game losses to Manny Pacquiao and Timothy Bradley showed highlight reels of concussive shots.


Parkland Shooting Shows “Nothing Will Come of Nothing”

Parkland Shooting Shows “Nothing Will Come of Nothing”

It’s happened again.

A young (sometimes) man (always) killed many innocent people (in this case, mostly high school students) and the politicians feigned sadness and called for prayer, the news stations garnered enough footage to run the story for a full day, and (you can bet on this because this is America) nothing will change because at the root of this carnage is money (as it is at the root of so much carnage in our “great again” country).

The Parkland shooting happened on Wednesday.

On Friday, less than 48 hours after 17 people were shot dead in Parkland, Florida, this brutally ironic juxtaposition of news story/advertisement appeared on

News Story: You can feel the horror unfold in these texts.

Paid Content: Top 4 Vegas buffets you can get for playing this free app.

I’m sure the editors at CNN didn’t intentionally line these two headlines up one after the other. But if this were a novel, and the novelist were shooting to convey a theme, I’d pan the writer’s choice for being too obvious.

Grief is followed by gluttony.

Gun deaths are followed by greed.

A small-city high school is the site of a mass shooting. A city of excess is the hook for an ad to separate you from your money, and the featured city is not just any city but Las Vegas where less than four months ago a shooter (male) with an automatic weapon (again) killed 58 innocent (always) people.

The perpetrators of mass shootings are worthless. They are men venting hate and seeking fame and righting self-perceived wrongs in the most cowardly way.

Like all clichés, the one that says “Guns don’t kill people, people do” is obviously true. More true is that the fundamental purpose of government is to pass and uphold laws that protect its people. And most true is this fundamental truth, a truth that not only inspires law but also religion (that opiate of the masses): Man has a heart of darkness.

It’s a pretty easy syllogism: If Man is Violent. Then Man with a Gun can be more Violent. Therefore, get rid of Guns.

But in the United States, money trumps logic.

Mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting occurs and nothing is done. The proof: a 19-year-old with a checklist of mass-murder warning signs (enough to alert the FBI that he could pose a dangerous threat) found easy access to a semi-automatic weapon and walked into a school and started shooting.

We’ve become so accustomed to news stories about angry, discontent, hateful, often racist men who kill multiple people that these incidents no longer impact us. Habit is the great deadener and the American public has become deadened. We watch the news. We listen to the canned responses. We see the stock footage (people running, people walking with their hands up, teams of police holding their own automatic weapons, vigils with singing and flowers, and, a day or so later, photographs of the dead, a collage of faces that blend together, features lost, a palatable way to generalize grief and help us put it away quickly). Our deadened response (like our dark hearts) is human nature too, existentialism at its most basic — we go on.

But we shouldn’t go on as is. And I recognize this call (my call) is as tepid and ineffectual as most calls after a mass shooting. The calls that could have real effects need to come from lawmakers, from our elected officials who ideally run for the good of the people and who are paid, with tax-payer money, to protect our safety.

While the vast majority of Americans want stricter gun laws, and while the vast majority of Americans understand that the right to bear arms is a ridiculously antiquated notion written up when muskets were the order of the day (and a notion open to great misinterpretation), the gun lobby is so powerful, the money the NRA spreads to political campaigns is so rampant, that nothing will be done.

Donald Trump tweeted this after the Parkland shooting: “My prayers and condolences to the families of the victims of the terrible Florida shooting. No child, teacher, or anyone else should ever feel unsafe in an American school.”

For all it’s worth, an advertisement for Las Vegas buffets could follow this generic, non-response.

Donald Trump is a man who adopted religion for campaign purposes only. He knows nothing about scripture, he lies, he commits adultery, and he’s broken most of the other Ten Commandments. His prayers mean nothing.

Donald Trump is a man who has reportedly received over 31 million from the NRA. To think he will actually make us feel safe with real, hard-nosed legislation is a pipedream. Our president is a money-first capitalist. Our president wants to keep the gun-toting faction of his base happy. Our president is regressive, not progressive. His tweeted words of assurance mean nothing.

King Lear, who starts his play as a prideful, selfish, flawed, and elderly king (draw your comparisons), says during an especially greedy moment in the play’s first scene, “Nothing will come of nothing.”

Nothing will come of nothing.

That’s the habitual truth that follows the habitual outrage that follows America’s habitual mass shootings.

Trump’s Character is His Fate

Trump’s Character is His Fate

Image: Trump's Character Is Fate
United States President Donald J. Trump answers a reporter’s question as he returns to the White House January 26, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images)

Saturday, 27 Jan 2018 12:14 PMCurrent | Bio | Archive

I’m a writer, not a lawyer. Sometimes I write political articles, sometimes boxing articles, but mostly I write novels. So I may not know the law, chapter and verse, but I do know something about character. The adage, like many adages, is true: Character is fate. In a novel, if a character acts “out of character” the reader will recognize something’s off. In real life, if a person acts out of character, something’s usually up.To his credit, Donald Trump has remained consistent in his character. He may lie, he may stretch the truth as character Huck Finn accuses Mark Twain of doing, but Trump has always lied, always chiseled, always sought the headline no matter the dishonesty of its words.

But eventually, because character is fate, Trump’s character will create his own undoing. When history looks back, one seminal interaction may stand out as the moment Trump’s consistent character began a fated unraveling that ended in his impeachment, or worse.

On November 10, 2016, then-president Barack Obama met with newly-elected Donald Trump at the White House, a ritualistic show of peaceful baton-passing that remains one of America’s greatest virtues in a time of ever-dwindling greatness. The pictures of that day show smiles and awkward handshakes and, when the meeting ended, Trump left the White House singing Obama’s praises, which wasn’t an outright lie but a holding-pattern lie. At his core, the billionaire who started the birther conspiracy hated our first black president and Trump’s vitriol would reappear a few days later.

Donald Trump has spent his first year in office trying to undo everything Barack Obama did. He’s failed at many of these undoings. And he’s taken credit for many of Obama’s successes, including our relatively healthy economy, methodically put into play by our last president. Trump may be a builder, but he’s most at home with a wrecking ball in hand, narcissistically swinging at anything that’s a threat to his sense of self. And to Donald, anything Barack did or said was a threat.

One concrete piece of advice Obama gave Trump at their White House meeting was to steer clear of Michael Flynn. Flynn had served under Obama as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, but during his tenure Flynn forged a reputation as a loose cannon. Obama warned Trump to beware that looseness. But Trump, always believing he’s the smartest man in the room because, after all, he’s a stable genius, refused to listen. Completely in character, operating from a position of know-it-all spite, Trump hired Flynn as National Security Adviser. This spit-in-the-eye will inevitably (fatefully) boomerang because the loose cannon has looser lips.

Trump has another character deficiency (among many). He can’t concentrate on details. Perhaps his inattention to the minutia of fine print is a testament to his genius — Trump’s mind is so often in the stratosphere, musing philosophically, the only details he can consider are financial ones, like paying a porn star 130 grand to keep her trap shut.

Unfortunately for Donald Trump, the law, like the devil, is in the details. And while Trump has operated above the law in his business dealings, it will be criminal if the United States allows him to operate above the law in his presidential dealings.

Let’s remember Trump’s tweet after he fired Michael Flynn: “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.” Flynn was fired on February 13, 2017. FBI Director James Comey, who refused to promise loyalty to Trump (an under-handed but character-consistent request by the president) was fired on May 9, 2017. Trump’s tweet went out December 2, 2017. The timeline’s important. Donald Trump’s thoughtless yet genius-filled fingers tapped letter keys that basically spelled out he knew Flynn was lying at least as early as early December. Which means for almost ten months, Donald Trump sat on truth he should have revealed. And in the interim, he fired a man who had the power to seek out this truth. That looks like obstruction of justice.

It’s January 2018 and Robert Mueller is slowly but surely (that’s his character) putting together a case against Donald Trump, a case that will carefully bolster Trump’s careless tweet. (Trump must be nervous because, this just in, Trump ordered Mueller fired in June, a month after he fired Comey.) With each passing day and each passing headline, it appears the noose is getting tighter no matter what the Fox conspiracy theorists tell you. The he-doesn’t-know-any-better defense has worked to protect Trump on an array of bungled, apprentice actions during his first year as president, but this defense, which we will inevitably hear from Trump supporters and from the notorious blame-caster himself, needs to be ignored when Mueller delivers his final decree.

Donald Trump will say he was ignorant of the law (otherwise how could he have tweeted so freely). But that cannot and should not absolve him of guilt. If someone gets busted for possessing too much marijuana and says he didn’t know the legal limit, that’s not a defense. If someone commits a petty burglary and his partner in crime kills a bystander, and the non-violent offender claims innocence to accessory to murder because he didn’t know the law, that’s not a defense. If our president proclaims he didn’t obstruct justice because he didn’t read the legal fine print, that’s just too bad.

Character is fate. Donald Trump’s spitefulness fated him to hire Michael Flynn. Donald Trump’s sloppiness fated him to tweet what he tweeted. And when the verdict comes in, Donald Trump’s arrogance will fate him to defend himself and brand the whole criminal justice system corrupt. But finally, this cartoon of a man, this character, will fulfill his destiny. He’ll bring upon his own firing in the most humiliating way.

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A Roman Thumbs Down for McGregor

A Roman Thumbs Down for McGregor

A Roman Thumbs Down for Conor McGregor

By Adam Berlin on August 25, 2017

A Roman Thumbs Down for Conor McGregor

We’re a day away.

With a poetry collection soon to come out, I’ve tried to find a non-cliché, a fresh metaphor, some original words to touch what the Mayweather/McGregor spectacle is, but I keep coming back to that overused car-wreck image—we may pretend we don’t want to see the horror, yet like the rest of those very-human onlookers slowing their vehicles, we look and look and look for as long as we can at the damage.

As I wrote in a previous piece, I won’t pay for this fight—because it’s not worth the price of admission. And I won’t see this fight—because it won’t be a good fight. But I’ve read a bunch of articles on the upcoming spectacle, and I’ve watched all four episodes of All Access, and I’ve spoken to boxing fans and non-boxing fans about tomorrow’s “fight.” The takeaways are pretty basic. Casual fans who know nothing about boxing, and Conor McGregor fans blinded by adulation, believe McGregor has a puncher’s chance. Boxing people know Floyd Mayweather Jr. will not only pitch a shutout but a no-hitter. I’ve suggested McGregor should take the fight to a place he knows where elbows and kicks and chokeholds reside, but this won’t happen—Pedro Armendariz astutely notes in this site’s Comments section that McGregor will “act shitty” during the fight’s preamble, but when the bell rings (when talking for play turns to fighting for pay), he’ll act like “a good little boy.”

The truth is, McGregor will act the little boy because if he doesn’t play nice, if he breaks the contract that stipulates Marquess of Queensberry rules only, he’ll lose his purse. McGregor will also be the little boy (without acting) because he just can’t box. When a great professional fights a mediocre professional, we talk about the master taking the apprentice to school. When the best professional fighter of this generation fights a man who has never fought a single professional fight in a boxing ring, the school we must talk about is pre-K at best.

In Thursday’s The New York Times, Joe DePaolo wrote an interesting piece on the real danger this fight presents. I’m glad he reminded me—seriously. The possibility of danger is something I’d forgotten when thinking about this particular fight, probably because of the glitter surrounding Saturday’s upcoming spectacle, the rehearsed or almost-rehearsed publicity tour, the glossy footage All Access presents, and the incessant focus on the cartoonish dimensions of Saturday’s two main characters. This fight has the sheen of the unreal.  Mayweather with his backpacks full of cash (street cred aside, isn’t it easier to carry around a credit card?), and McGregor with his outlandish outfits (such sartorial splendor belongs on runways or WWF arenas) have been portrayed not so much as fighters, but as avatars of a fight game that is indeed a game. But it’s not.

As Joe DePaolo points out, the Association of Ring Doctors, comprised of more than 100 doctors who ply their trade in a triage unit surrounded by ring posts, has not sanctioned the Mayweather/McGregor fight. They’re shocked and dismayed that the Nevada State Athletic Commission is allowing this fight to go on. DePaolo does the math—when all is said and done, the commission’s cut will be about 1.2 million dollars. My math says that’s enough to keep the commissioner and his posse in steaks and martinis for many moons. As a point of reference, DePaolo cites a fight Nevada’s Athletic Commission wouldn’t sanction between Andre Ward (the top pound-for-pounder on my list) with 18-1 Rohan Murdock. Expecting a blowout, a dangerous blowout, the NSAC said No.

In DePaolo’s article, Bob Bennett, the executive director of the commission, defends Nevada’s decision to sanction McGregor/Mayweather with these words: “Conor is the taller, longer, stronger, more powerful opponent. He’s also a southpaw, which makes it a little more difficult for a conventional fighter. He’s 12 years younger than Floyd.”

Really? Let’s drill down (to use a term drilled hollow by 24-hour news commentators) this statement.

First, let’s look at Ward/Murdock, the unsanctioned fight. BoxRec (which doesn’t tell the whole story but tells some of the story) shows Murdock being as tall as Ward, having a one-inch reach advantage over Ward, being eight years younger than Ward, and having beaten a number of fighters with undefeated and/or winning records, with Murdock’s last three opponents clocking in at a combined 45-4-1. Slouches all they may be, but Murdock is a professional boxer who has actually boxed. Would Ward have ruined him? Of course. That’s why the fight wasn’t sanctioned.

Are Mayweather and Ward in the same class? Easily. So Nevada saying No to Murdock doesn’t line up with saying Yes to McGregor. And Bob Bennett’s words about the charms of McGregor don’t hold up either.

According to BoxrRec, Mayweather is 5’8”. McGregor is 5’9”. As for reach, Mayweather’s 72-inch reach is two inches shorter than McGregor’s listed 74 inches. And McGregor is closer to eleven years Mayweather’s junior. Fair enough. But to say a southpaw will give Mayweather trouble is absurd. To say McGregor is the “more powerful opponent” is equally absurd. Perhaps McGregor is the stronger man in a parking-lot fight, but when it comes to concussive strength, Mayweather is feet (not inches) taller than McGregor. And with eight-ounce gloves Mayweather’s punches will crack even harder. If you’ve watched the very-limited (read censored) footage of McGregor hitting the heavy bag, you see how amateur and weak his shots truly are. Compare those feeble punches to Mayweather’s bag work. Mayweather, always relaxed in his gym, pops the heavy bag with the most casual punches. Again, masters and apprentices, college teachers and pre-K students come to mind.

I think the Association of Ring Doctors would agree that sanctioning eight-ounce gloves when this junior middleweight bout should see the fighters wearing ten-ounce gloves is unconscionable. The NSAC is turning a blind eye to glaring danger. Mayweather may not be a knockout artist, but he can punch. Look what he did to Victor Ortiz when Ortiz wasn’t ready to absorb a shot. McGregor will be in that un-ready, wide open, chin-up position as soon as he throws his first amateur haymaker, which is about the only punch he can throw.

Back to that clichéd car-crash image.

We watch because everyone else is watching, an echo of “I was only following orders.” We watch because we’re fascinated by what’s out of the ordinary, a break from the monotony that most road trips really are. And we watch because we want to see something horrible and brutal—we’re all infected by the heart of darkness.

Boxing, of all sports, is founded on that darkness. And death fights, not cartoon deaths but real deaths, are an all-too common occurrence. Stripped to its basics and stripped of its beauty, boxing is about one man trying to concuss another man.

So strip away the sheen, strip away the pre-fight hype, strip away that glittery veil that’s been created to sell Mayweather vs. McGregor as an extravaganza, a spectacle, a circus meant to distract us from our humdrum day-to days, and you have a fight between two men who want to impose real hurt, real damage. And when the damage gets too real, when bruises turn to blood and when blood leaks into brains, comas and death often follow.

Will this fight become a death fight? Probably not. Perhaps these two men have already made an unwritten agreement (or will make one during the fight) not to fight as hard as they could. I’ve seen this before in prize fights, and for a lot less money on the line. Perhaps veteran referee Robert Byrd, recognizing that the fight in front of him is a ridiculous mismatch, will stop the bout before it gets too ugly, too dangerous.

But perhaps, just perhaps, Floyd will beat McGregor down. Some ugly things have been said during the build-up to this fight—sexist, and racist, and low-blow statements that could dent even the toughest Teflon coatings. So perhaps a fight, a real fight, a heart-of-darkness fight will break out. And if that happens, Floyd Mayweather has the ability to do what Muhammad Ali did at least twice when fighting overmatched opponents who got under his skin. He taunted Ernie Terrell with a chorus of “What’s my name?” (Terrell refused to call Ali Ali) as he beat the shit out of him. Against Floyd Patterson, who showed similar disrespect, Ali went further, carrying Patterson for eleven rounds so he could torture Patterson before finishing him in the 12th.

Here’s one particularly stinging criticism delivered by McGregor against Mayweather during their publicity tour: “What are you doing carrying a book bag on stage, you can’t even read?” Perhaps this taunt with its layered implications has stayed with Floyd, festering, softening the edges of Floyd’s usual cool, calm, controlled resolve. If it has, perhaps Mayweather has Ali-like plans for McGregor.

If you’ve ever seen a death fight, and I have, you’ll know that the most dangerous beatings don’t come in the form of spectacular one-punch knockouts. They come from beatings, from tapping that rock over and over and over and over until it cracks, permanently. Death fights are usually mesmerizing, but they’re rough to witness—I felt awful, sick, sad, when Juan Ramon Cruz beat (yes, beat) Isidro “Gino” Perez at the Felt Forum. I saw Gino crumple, then stand, then crumple again. I watched Gino’s body carried out on a stretcher, oxygen mask covering his face, carried right by me. And later, when the night’s fights had ended, I went to St. Vincent’s Hospital and stood in the Emergency Room and heard Gino’s mother screaming. Like most fighters who suffer severe brain bleeds, Isidro “Gino” Perez went into a coma and died a few days later.

But I bought a ticket to the next fight card at the Felt Forum.

Mayweather/McGregor is a modern-day circus, as in bread and circuses. And instead of the Coliseum, the masses will pack the T-Mobile Arena and fill many couches across the world, watching on pay-per-view. In those original circuses, men sometimes fought beasts and beasts, being beasts, being naturally more gifted in the art of killing, won. Mayweather is more dangerous still. He is a master—he is a thinker in the ring first, a protector of self, the best at hitting and not getting hit. But in this fight, against a non-professional boxer, he won’t have to worry about safety first. He’ll be able to let loose the way we’ve wanted him to let loose in so many of his other fights.

“I’ll kill him” is a refrain we often hear fighters say pre-fight. And in a sick, car-crash, Coliseum way, maybe that’s what the public pays for, a circus with the ultimate price. If these were Roman times, and gladiator Mayweather humiliated schoolboy McGregor, what would the masses do? Would they give McGregor thumbs up or thumbs down? The truth is, the nays would have it.

That’s who we all are, whether we admit it or not.

And now one final time, in the spirt of Norman Mailer, who himself wrote about the fights, I’m going to advertise myself. My first poetry collection will be published by Finishing Line Press and the pre-sale period is almost over. The title of the collection is The Standing Eight. The epigraph is from Waiting for Godot. The poems all touch boxing, at least tangentially. And the poems point beyond boxing and go to those between-round places where an eight count is both reprieve and curse.

For a quarter of the price of tomorrow’s pay-per-view, you’ll get a collection of poems that, I believe, touch the felt experience of boxing. Buy a copy for yourself. Buy a copy for the boxing fan or the poetry fan in your life. Help spread the word if you can. There’s poetry in the ring. I’ve tried to put some of what happens in the ring into poetry.

Here’s the link to the site:

Adam Berlin is the author of four novels, most recently the boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). He teaches writing at John Jay College/CUNY.  For more, please visit

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How a Man Chooses to Lose

How a Man Chooses to Lose

 How a Man Chooses to Lose: What McGregor Should Do
By Adam Berlin on August 1, 2017

How a Man Chooses to Lose: What McGregor Should Do

August is here. And the fight event (not the fight) of this month, of this summer, probably of this year, happens on August 26th when TBE (not) Floyd Mayweather faces UFC champion Conor McGregor.  Many boxing purists are mocking the upcoming bout, expressing their disdain for a fight that’s sure to disappoint the aficionados. Others proclaim boxing, a capitalist venture first, will not suffer and probably prosper from the massive cross-over attention this contest is garnering.

But when August 26th moves into August 27th and the long view of history for this particular fight begins, the Mayweather/McGregor match will quickly fade into the footnote it is, an asterisk next to Mayweather’s name, a Wikipedia line in McGregor’s entry. The contest isn’t even a con. Boxing fans and MMA fans and casual sports fans understand this is a spectacle, an event, not a fair fight, and whatever happens on August 26th will leave no significant mark on either combat sport—boxing or MMA.

This fight’s insignificance is one reason I won’t pay to view. The main reason I won’t watch Mayweather/McGregor is I’m just not that interested. There’s nothing fair about this upcoming fight, the rules are stacked in Mayweather’s favor, completely, and whatever grace I admire in boxing will be absent here. (One reason I rarely watch MMA fights is because they’re so graceless, so parking-lot sloppy—of course, the combatants are skilled fighters, but the grappling in their octagon looks ponderous next to, say, college or Olympic wrestling’s artful holds, and the punches, wide and sloppy, smack of the apprentice.) Because this fight will be fought under the Marquess of Queensbury rules, any potential conflict/tension/drama (the stuff of good stories and good fights) will be absent. It’s not a newsflash. Conor McGregor is going to lose. The contract these two fighters signed practically stipulates this inevitability. All we don’t know is how quickly Conor McGregror will lose and how badly.

I see Mayweather being Mayweather, safely hitting and moving until the non-boxer in front of him can’t take it anymore.

When Conor McGregor can’t take it anymore, when he realizes there’s zero chance he can compete with a master boxer (and I’m sure McGregor, no dummy, realizes this already, a minor wound to his ego, which will be soothed by millions of dollars), then and only then will the potential intrigue to this match emerge. It will be a quick moment’s worth of intrigue, but it’s the moment why, beyond wanting to see a spectacle, so many will buy into this fight—everyone wants to see how Conor McGregor chooses to lose.

He can go quietly and gently into this fight’s inevitable night, which means he can pretend he’s a boxer until the end when time runs out or the referee stops the bout.

Or he can go less gently by asserting his fighting self, by showing Floyd Mayweather that in an octagon, a place where not just fists are used to touch an opponent, or in the street, or in real life, he would have decimated Mayweather the way Mayweather is (will be) decimating him.

The way a man loses helps define that man. And I’m not talking about the polite take on this idea, about the measure of a man being defined by how he gets up after being knocked down, literally and metaphorically.

The way a man loses, and the moral implications attached to the way a man loses, is magnified in boxing (and, probably, all forms of fighting). Some fighters quit when they’ve had enough. Some fight until the end, going out on their proverbial shields, risking the humiliation of getting knocked out, of ending in a prone or supine position (the opposite of standing, upright victory), in front of a crowd. And some men choose to lose on their own terms.

When it comes to boxing, purists may admire men who fight to the finish obeying Queensbury rules. But non-purists, or those who think survival is more admirable than winning or even playing by the rules, may see this legitimized exit as a sucker’s game. I admit that while I admire the grace of boxing, and much of this grace is tied to playing by rules, I also admire (and am drawn to) the fight in the fights, the stripped-down, heart-of-darkness, kill-or-be-killed underpinning of what makes a real fight a real fight.

Think back to these two images of that most fearsome fighter, Mike Tyson.

Here’s the first image:

Mike is on the ground, on his knees, stumbling around the canvas, trying to put his mouthpiece back into his mouth, the thick padding of his glove too thick to finish the task, a task he’s focused upon with the same intensity as a drunk who has to do what he thinks he has to do when what he’s doing is futile, absurd even. Tyson’s eyes are gone. His legs are gone. Everything that made him Mike Tyson, the man who ended most of his fights standing while the other man lay prone or supine, all of that is gone. In this image, an image every boxing fan who witnessed this fight vividly remembers, Iron Mike Tyson is not a man to be feared. He’s a man to be pitied or, if cruel, a man to be mocked. That was Mike Tyson at the end of the Buster Douglas fight when he, Mike Tyson, fought by the rules.

Here’s the second image:

Mike is standing. The fight’s been stopped, but Mike is on his feet, his eyes still clear, his street-cred intact. The other man may have won the fight. But the other man is bleeding. He’s missing a chunk of his ear. In real-life fights, in battle, in war, where damage is assessed not by a ten-point-must system but by more primal scores, Mike Tyson has not lost. That was Mike Tyson against Evander Holyfield in their second meeting, after Tyson had played by the rules once, the first time, and ended up off his feet, a loser by both fight definitions.

For a fighter, for any man if he’s honest, I think it’s easier to live with the second image.

Back to that first image: If Mike Tyson could do it all over again, or if he’d recognized the long view of history during that rough night in Tokyo instead of getting punched senseless, I wonder if he might have bitten off Buster Douglas’s ear, a move that would have erased the memory of Tyson fumbling like a drunk, which will forever melt some of Iron Mike’s fearsome reputation.

Conor McGregor’s self-proclaimed nickname The Notorious suggests he has a sense of history. And this sense may be the key to what happens on August 26th—perhaps he’ll do what he needs to do to preserve his dignity as a fighter even as he loses the fight, even if he’s chastised by boxing purists (but complimented by those who believe winning a fight by any means is more important than winning a fight by prescribed means).

And part of me, the part that admires the fight part of fighting, the part that wants to see Money May earn his money in this farce of a boxing match, the part that wants to see the egotistical B and outrageous E tarnished in TBE, wants to read about (and see a few days later) how Conor McGregor took a play out of Tyson’s street-fighting book and hurt this man, Floyd Mayweather, who has seldom been hurt. Conor McGregor should kick Mayweather. He should take Mayweather down to the ground. He should put Mayweather in a chokehold. He should beat Mayweather even as he’s disqualified from the fight.

At the press conference following this spectacle, rules will be invoked, excuses will be made, and there will be laughter about the mega-million checks being cashed, but the asterisk next to Mayweather’s record (soon to be 50 and 0) and the line in McGregor’s Wikipedia entry (he lost a boxing match to Floyd Mayweather) will have an image attached we won’t forget. That, perhaps, will be the more important win, and that victory will belong to Conor McGregor if he does, fuck rules, what maybe he should do.

As a boxing fan, I will say this. Instead of fighting Conor McGregor, I wish Floyd Mayweather, a superlative, intelligent, pure boxer, would have signed to fight Terence Crawford or Errol Spence, both potentially superlative boxers. A fight like that would have been a fight to watch. A fight like that would have made a mark (not a footnote-scratch) on boxing history.

And now, in the spirt of Norman Mailer, who himself wrote about the fights, I’m going to advertise myself. My first poetry collection will be published by Finishing Line Press and the pre-sale period just started. The title of the collection is The Standing Eight. The epigraph is from Waiting for Godot. The poems all touch boxing, at least tangentially. And the poems point beyond boxing and go to those between-round places where an eight-count is both reprieve and curse.

For a quarter of the price of August 26th’s pay-per-view, you’ll get a collection of poems that, I believe, touch the felt experience of boxing. Buy a copy for yourself. Buy a copy for the boxing fan or the poetry fan in your life. Help spread the word if you can. There’s poetry in the ring. I’ve tried to put some of what happens in the ring into poetry.

Here’s the link to the site:

Adam Berlin is the author of four novels, including the boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas A&M University Consortium Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize) and Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award). He teaches writing at John Jay College/CUNY and edits the litmag J Journal. His poetry collection, The Standing Eight, comes out this fall. For more, please visit

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Interview with Erika Dreifus

Interview with Erika Dreifus

An Interview with Adam Berlin

I became acAdamBerlinquainted with Adam Berlin through his work (as co-editor with Jeffrey Heiman) of J JOURNAL: NEW WRITING ON JUSTICE, a publication on whose editorial advisory board I now serve. Both Adam and Jeffrey are superb (and superbly generous) editors, and I’m pleased and honored to have the opportunity to shift some of the spotlight back to their writing in this interview with Adam about his newest novel, THE NUMBER OF MISSING, a book set in the months following the 9/11 attacks. THE NUMBER OF MISSING is slated for November 2013 publication by Spuyten Duyvil.

Adam Berlin is also the author of the novels BOTH MEMBERS OF THE CLUB (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize), BELMONDO STYLE (St. Martin’s Press) and HEADLOCK (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of The City University of New York in Manhattan, where he co-founded J JOURNAL: NEW WRITING ON JUSTICE.

Please welcome Adam Berlin.

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): As much as I admire THE NUMBER OF MISSING, I can’t say that it was a pleasure to read. The experiences depicted within it are raw, and they’re painful, and I’m wondering if the experience of writing it was similarly difficult, emotionally. Or let’s put it this way: How did the experience of writing THE NUMBER OF MISSING differ from the experience of writing your other novels?

ADAM BERLIN (AB): I spent more time writing and revising this novel—12 years from start to finish. The first draft I completed literally one year after 9/11. New York City was still raw and that rawness was reflected in my writing and really in my first-person narrator’s voice. But it was less about the raw emotions of grief and loss and more about the raw emotion of anger, of wanting to lash out at something, even if that something was nebulous. With each draft, I tried to shift the rawness away from anger. The anger is still there in the novel, percolating throughout, and I think it’s honest anger; after all, the narrator loses his best friend in a violent, seemingly senseless way. But in the novel’s final version, much of anger, the rushes of anger that drove the early drafts, have calmed into moments of stillness and sadness that are more damaging. My characters are moving in circles—drinking, remembering, not really able to move forward. It’s this static quality, this sense of winding down to a still place, that increasingly took over the book’s texture with each draft. Most books are about moving forward. This book is about winding down, about entropy, about that place where everything seems to settle into nothing.

Emotionally, I felt more invested in this book than my past novels. My first novel, HEADLOCK, was autobiographical in many ways, but it’s an on-the-road story and the narrator is joined by a compelling companion. The highs in that novel are reckless highs, and there’s some joy in that recklessness. In THE NUMBER OF MISSING, my first-person narrator is very close to me, but in this novel the companion, the best friend, is dead. The memories of when the friend was alive may be vibrant, and many of these memories are joyful and reckless, but the narrator, David, is alone during much of this novel. And while David wants to fall, to give in to his grief completely, the only thing that saves him from falling is that he’s waiting for his dead friend’s wife to fall first. He wants to fall but he’s made a silent promise to his dead friend to catch her. It’s not a good place to be.

ED: At one point in the novel, another character tells David: “It’s your first. There have been many 9/11s. Yours is not so special.” Where did those lines come from?

AB: When I was writing the early drafts of the book I was living downtown on the corner of Bedford and Barrow Streets in a rooming-house room above a famous bar called Chumley’s. I also worked at Chumley’s and this guy named Mike, a neighborhood guy, a WW2 vet, used to come into the bar while I set up for my shift. When 9/11 happened, when the towers went down, he seemed almost unaffected. He said anyone who’d been to war, who had seen buildings bombed and buildings ablaze and buildings fall, wouldn’t be shocked or horrified. He said what had happened downtown was no different from what he’d seen as a soldier. At first, it seemed a crass, cold thing to say. But for him it made sense and I don’t think he was trying to be a tough guy about it.Unknown

And what happened that day was a war of sorts, a violent declaration against us. In the book I use a lot of war parallels, but for the narrator, and he’s aware of this, the parallels are too-easy. Whatever David knows about war comes from Hollywood, not from experience. And while he sees himself in the trenches, another image of being stuck, of not being able to move, he recognizes that his visions come from war scenes, movie-war scenes, not war. This old guy Mike who hung around Chumley’s, he’d witnessed real war—with real fire and real damage and real death and without any glamor, without a rousing musical score behind the violence. When the towers went down, it was new for most of us. It was shocking because our eyes had never seen anything like it. But for those who have lived war, and the character who says the line you refer to is a woman who grew up in war-torn Georgia, the Eastern European Georgia, 9/11 is not so shocking. And in the long view of history, there have been many 9/11s.

In my novel, the narrator has a hard time conceding this point—the loss he feels is still fresh and so unique to him. But as the novel progresses, and the anger subsides, and the emptiness takes over, he starts to recognize that his loss is not the only loss and that this tragedy is one in a never-ending list of men destroying men.

ED: What was your biggest hope for this novel as you were writing it? Your biggest anxiety?

AB: My hope for this novel was to do something different from other 9/11 novels I’d read. Instead of using the day as a symbol or as a catalyst for plot, I wanted to write about a very focused time during the months of the aftermath where two characters go on living but not really. It’s the “not really “I tried to get right. For anyone who lived in New York City at that time, at least anyone who lived below 14th Street, the city seemed dead. Or at least stopped. For months after, you’d come up out of the subway and expect to see the twin towers that had been part of our downtown horizon still standing tall. But what you’d see was an empty gap. It was that gap, the literal emptiness and the emotional emptiness, that I wanted in the novel at all times. I was thinking of post-war novels when I wrote THE NUMBER OF MISSING, and most specifically of Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES, not the style, but the mood, where a character goes through the motions trying to live life but never forgets, not for a second, what has come before.

ED: And your biggest anxiety?

AB: My biggest anxiety was not about the novel. I worked hard to write the book I wanted to read. My biggest anxiety was placing a novel that is, as you said in your opening comments, not a pleasure to read. Each anniversary of 9/11 is difficult, but I felt there had to come a time when there would be enough distance to this devastatingly momentous event when writers and readers could face this specific tragedy head-on, which is what I tried to do in my novel—to face the results of that day head-on.

THE SUN ALSO RISES was published in 1926, eight years after the end of WW1. THE NAKED AND THE DEAD was published three quick years after the end of WW2. Perhaps each tragedy has its own time frame— it took 15 years [after the Holocaust] for Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT to come out in the United States. The question I kept asking myself, and it was an anxious question because my manuscript wasn’t moving, was about how much time needed to elapse before people would read a novel that is completely focused on 9/11’s aftermath. There were other 9/11 novels, many of them, but the ones I’d read didn’t stay in that empty, static place. And what was different about 9/11—why was the American public willing to read direct depictions about WW1 and WW2 relatively quickly? Is it because these wars were more decisive and ended in victory? Is it because these wars happened over there? Is it because our image of the falling towers, of people falling, is so nightmarish and so close no one wanted to revisit it? I didn’t know the answers. What I did know was that my book was getting rejected. Many of the rejection notes were very complimentary, but the uniform response was that the book was too bleak.

Perhaps with 12 years of distance between then and now, the time is right for this novel. My agent, the late Robert Lescher, was very high on the novel when he first saw it. He even hired an editor at a big house to read my early drafts and give me notes, which were very useful. But Bob knew this would be a tough sell. And it was. But in some ways it was fortuitous. As long as the book didn’t sell, I could keep going back to it, refining it, and so perhaps those 12 years of work were a blessing. I feel this version, the published version, is stripped down to where it needs to be and, as I said, with each revision it became less angry, more sad, and so more human. Perhaps I too needed distance from those dead months even as I tried to write about the immediacy of those dead months.

I warn my students at John Jay about happy endings in their stories where conflicts are resolved too neatly. But this writing story has a happy ending because the well-regarded Spuyten Duyvil, an independent press that’s held strong for 30 years, published the book. Now my biggest anxiety is whether or not the novel will have readers and get the play I hope it gets, which is probably every published writer’s anxiety.

ED: Although you didn’t tell me so, Adam, I’ve discovered that you actually have *two* new books being published this month: THE NUMBER OF MISSING and BOTH MEMBERS OF THE CLUB, which won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize and is being published by Texas Review Press. What is it like to have two books–both works of fiction–being released within the same month?

AB: My first two books, HEADLOCK AND BELMONDO STYLE, were published by big houses—Algonquin Books and St. Martin’s. And BELMONDO STYLE won a pretty big award—The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley award, which is the same award Michael Cunningham won for THE HOURS and Josh Berendt won for MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL. So I thought I was a made man. But I wasn’t. It’s been about eight years since I’ve had a novel published and the waiting was rough. After eight years of nothing—writing hundreds of pages over thousands of hours without a book sale—I no longer felt like a writer. It’s easy to watch movie writers write—those pages fly off the typewriter or out of the printer in super-fast motion that has nothing to do with a real writer’s struggle. On screen, writer’s block takes about three seconds, a writer’s overnight success a minute or two. But in real time, writing and revising and revising and revising, chunks of life are checked off. I’d checked off a lot of time and I hadn’t signed a single new contract and when I looked at myself in the mirror, my eyes bloodshot from looking too long at sentences, I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t sell a book. My agent got sick and let go many of his clients, including me, and he died shortly after. So I started from scratch.

I sent out THE NUMBER OF MISSING on my own while looking for an agent. And I started entering some writing competitions. I’d written a short boxing novel, which felt like the right form for a book about boxing, which is all about stripping down. The big houses rarely publish novellas so I sent my manuscript to a few university press competitions. It was great to get the call from Texas Review Press. After eight years of famine, it felt good to feast. I did a lot of self-marketing over the summer, first on THE NUMBER OF MISSING, then on BOTH MEMBERS OF THE CLUB, which was easier because I write for a boxing website called and have some boxing connections thanks to my brother, who’s an attorney for many boxers and people in the boxing business. Anyway, it feels great to have two books coming out, it makes me feel like a real writer again, and it’s given me the adrenaline to keep putting in the hours.

ED: And you’re still co-editing J JOURNAL: NEW WRITING ON JUSTICE, the literary magazine that you founded with your colleague at John Jay College, Jeffrey Heiman. Anything special on the horizon for J JOURNAL that you want to share with THE PRACTICING WRITER’s readers?

AB: Jeff and I came up with the idea for a literary journal with a justice theme about six years ago, which was a natural outgrowth of John Jay College’s mission—we’re a criminal justice college but we’re also a liberal arts college. With each issue of J JOURNAL, I think we realize more and more that the journal’s best work is the most tangentially connected to justice. The stories and poems and creative non-fiction pieces we publish could be found in any good lit mag, but when the work is placed under the large banner of justice, the pieces seem to resonate, together and separately, in a distinct way. We’re still a fledgling journal, but we’ve been getting strong reviews and this has been reflected in many more quality submissions. Jeff’s a great friend and colleague and there’s a real joy to the work we do together on the journal. We work hard to provide detailed editorial feedback to our writers and hope they appreciate our hands-on approach. It’s been fascinating to see how many different ways our writers have approached justice. And it’s been rewarding to cultivate some new writers. A number of our contributors have recently sold their first novels or books of poetry and Jeff and I feel proud of them, and, in some small way, part of their success.

ED: Anything else you want to share with us, Adam?

AB: I dedicated THE NUMBER OF MISSING to John William Perry. John went to law school with my brother and while I didn’t know him well, I made a vow that if my novel were ever published I would dedicate it to him. John was also a police officer and was turning in his badge on the morning of 9/11 when the planes hit. He died helping people in the North Tower. And as I wrote in my acknowledgement page, the number of missing at John Jay College was sixty-eight.

To learn more about Adam Berlin, please visit his website.

Word Riot Interview with Adam Berlin

Word Riot Interview with Adam Berlin


August 15, 2014

An Interview With Adam Berlin by Sara Whitestone

Adam Berlin is the author of the novels The Number of Missing(Spuyten Duyvil), the boxing novel Both Members of the Club(Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize), Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-edits J Journal: New Writing on Justice. For more, please visit

An introduction by Adam Berlin

After an eight-year publishing drought, two novels came out in 2013 and my productivity doubled. Was I excited? That’s too strong a word. Was I relieved? Yes. Could I call myself a writer again without feeling like a fake? I could. But do I believe my writing life will get easier? That I’ll enter that elite circle of writers who never have to worry about rejection? That’s a tough one. Even a little success begets motivation—two new novels in one year infused me, and these days I pretend things will get easier. But just as I do in my fiction, I only pretend so much.

Whitestone: The theme for the writing class that I am teaching is fear, and we are talking about how we (even we professionals who do it all the time) have to face our fears when we write. I would enjoy having you talk a little about your writing process and any fears you might experience while exposing yourself in words.

Berlin: I’m happy to talk about fear (or fearlessness) in writing.

Whitestone: Do you think it’s easier (less scary) to write a piece of fiction than a personal essay? Can’t you just hide your truth in the fiction knowing that no one can decode which is which? But in creative nonfiction so much is laid bare, exposed, vulnerable.

Berlin: I try to write fiction that is raw and, because it’s raw, real. It’s a fine line because during the revision process, especially the later part of the revision process, I try to make the prose flow and think carefully about sentence rhythms and word choices. I work on the writing sentence by sentence. But I work hard to hold onto that raw quality that inspired my early drafts. And in many parts of my novels and short stories, it’s all me. The emotions in my characters aren’t fictional and much of what they do and say is from life. Of course in fiction you tweak reality a little more, but even in nonfiction there is tweaking, there are decisions that have to be made about what to present and what not to present. So in this way, both fiction and nonfiction have artifice attached. I never really care if people assume I’m the character or not. I’m fearless that way.

Whitestone: Many risks that I’ve taken have turned out worthwhile—like asking you to conduct this interview without knowing you well and then finding you as a friend on the other end of that risk. (Thank you.) But many writing gambles have stung me hard. How can I tell which is which? How do you know when to withdraw to safety or when to move forward in fearlessness?

Berlin: Risks are good as long as they don’t kill you—in real life I take some risks, maybe more and more lately, and I skirt danger sometimes. So far, I’ve avoided any serious stings, except the stings I give myself. With writing, risk-taking is important. It keeps you from writing the same old, same old homogenized, formulaic story. I try to push my characters to difficult places. And like in life, I listen to my gut. If the place is too risky for the character, or if it’s not written in a plausible way, I pull back.
You should probably do the same. In life, use your gut when it comes to risks. And you should probably do the same in your nonfiction. Trust your gut. And stay away from homogenized, easy moments. Write the hard moments. The gut usually knows how far to push. At least that’s what I tell myself.

Whitestone: In the past I have let people that were close to me cause me to second-guess myself, but now, my gut tells me it’s time to be more fearless. Of course this is why I chose the theme of fear for my English 101 course. We should write what we know but also teach what we are experiencing. That’s when our craft is both genuine and effective. What growth have you seen in your own writing? What experiences do you use from your own life?

Berlin: My first story ever published was a baseball story—simple premise, simple conflict, but a good simple, I hope. It’s a hit and pitch contest, a college baseball pitcher who’s in a fraternity and believes he’ll make the pros against a hitter who is fresh out of college and never made the pros. It’s a classic man-versus-man conflict.
Yes, I tell my students to write what they know, but to also keep it simple on the plot level, and then tweak it so that the drama (and ultimately the themes) come through without the reader seeing the writer pulling the strings. I think my stories became less plot-heavy as I grew as a writer. I have a lot of stories about men, stories that showcase men’s strength and weaknesses and their irresponsible behavior. I have a lot of stories about men picking up women in bars or looking for trouble or trying to prove their manhood. In many of these stories, men face their fears, but also recognize their fears and try to cope with them. In that way, fear is one of the obstacles in my work—not an obstacle to writing, but an obstacle that the character has to get around or go through, and these are fears that men have. I think my novels most show my growth as a writer.
My newly released 9/11 book, The Number of Missing, is my most difficult, and in some ways, most troubling novel—it’s about a man dealing with loss by drinking and going out all the time and being careless. Those ideas have been in my work forever, but in this novel, because it’s a larger canvas and because 9/11 was so momentous and brought out so much emotion, raw emotion, the carelessness and the recklessness are greater. My gut told me I could push these emotions, and I like to think this is my most raw and, because of this, my most honest novel. In many ways it’s my most autobiographical novel. This character spends a lot of time alone in bars and walking the city and so he reveals more.
My themes are often recurring but, and I like to think this is a byproduct of growing as a writer, I go to harder places with these themes. It’s like the adage—a writer writes the same story over and over. I’m hoping my stories are becoming better, more revealing, more honest, and that I’m better at writing the hard parts of the story, the part Hemingway often talked about, the part that’s hard to face as a writer but must get faced if you’re a real writer.

Whitestone: In your short story, “Romance of the Seas”, which is about a writer who is on a road trip to promote his latest book, the character uses a unique second person voice to write about his discontent:

You have no joy. You’ve heard that the hardest thing to write is joy, but that’s not something you would ever write about anyway. You are thinking that the hardest thing to feel is joy. You can’t remember the last time you were seriously joyful. You certainly have not found joy on the road. What joy is there in showing up in a city alone, looking at the buildings, passing the people, seeing the sights like a checklist with no one to share them with? Part of the romance of the road, of the true on-the-road experience, is to be on your own, but it’s also very depressing. It’s not the actual driving. The driving is fine. You have the feel of the car and the wheel in your hands and you have to concentrate. You can speed and pass and weave. You can play games with the other drivers, dare them to pass you, accelerate just enough as they’re going by that they have to accelerate even more, more than they want, more than they should, and sometimes a cop nails them just at that moment. You lift your hand, wave, let them know that the king of the road is sometimes the slower man. You drive and you get to your destination and you walk around and there’s nothing to do but drink, kill time, flirt with a stranger, wait until you have to show up at the bookstore so you can read a few pages to a few people and sign a few books and then, thank goodness, get in the car and drive.

Whitestone: Is the hardest thing to write or to feel really joy? The search for joy is one of my recurring themes, so I guess I am trying to answer that question myself . . .

Berlin: Yes, I think joy’s the hardest thing to write. At least for me. And I hate reading joy tinged with sentimentality. So true joy—in life and writing—is hard to attain. I hope I get down moments of joy in my work, but my taste (and moods) go to the flip side of joy. I’m much more comfortable in moodier, angrier places.

Whitestone: I think sometimes I have been guilty of writing with sentiment. But it is those works that get rejected by editors (as they should). Then I go back and write the essays better and am made a better writer each time. Once an editor told me that I didn’t have the right to even mention joy or grace or beauty until I had earned it through suffering. That rejection just made me fight harder to get my piece published elsewhere.

Berlin: Rejection as a catalyst to fight harder—that’s the right attitude. The best revenge is served cold and with publications. I don’t believe you have to suffer and be tormented to be a writer—or to earn the right to write joy. Maybe it helps, but if you can write and if you can feel, who gives a shit what your upbringing was. As for editors, de gustibus, as they say. Some editors are going to appreciate your work. Some editors are not. As long as you write what you want to read, you’re being true to yourself.

Whitestone: I don’t think it’s revenge that I look for in these rejection or acceptance situations. It’s validation. But even then, for me the validation is not what motivates. The passion to write is. I have to say that you have a great work ethic—lots of publications over many years to your credit. What keeps you wanting to do it?

Berlin: To say I need to write is a cliché, but I think I need to write. Not like I need to eat or sleep. A lot of writing is ego-driven. Any writer who doesn’t admit that is lying, I think. Unless you’re throwing your pages in the river after you write them, you write to be read. You write to have an audience. It may not be to show off, but you’re writing with the ultimate belief, after you write the story you want to read, that your work is worthy of readers. I can say this, unequivocally. Writing is the best part of me—I am careful and responsible and smarter and wiser when I write. I am also arrogant about my writing. And I am competitive—I want to win at this.
But not when I am writing. When I write, I want to write the great book, the one I want to read, the one I would finish and say, “That will stay with me.” And when I’m done writing, I want (and arrogantly expect) to get attention. I have had many fallow years, and I feel in so many ways I have not received my due—that also pushes me forward. But the writing is pure. And when I’m writing, I work hard at it. It’s why when people tell me they’re writers I don’t believe them. There are few writers and mostly amateurs. They don’t do the work. Even on the sentence level, they just fall into easy patterns—this is why it’s so hard for me to read and critique others’ work these days. I feel I can see right through everyone’s work and see if it’s true or bullshit.

Whitestone: How did you first decide to become a writer? What was the catalyst?

Berlin: I was acting and doing a little modeling in New York City, was in the unions, and I realized I was not a team player and hated being out of control, auditioning to just do the work. I was in shape as an actor when I finished college, but then it was all about making it in the business, and I didn’t care enough about craft. I stopped going to acting classes. I didn’t prepare for auditions like I’d once prepared. I had been writing all along. My personality—being in full control, working on my own—was better suited for writing. And I was better at it. I worked in a bar where a real writer worked, and I showed her some stories, asked her if I had potential. She said I should go for my MFA, and I did. In the MFA program I learned discipline. I learned about putting in the hours, about having to put in the hours. I stopped auditioning and started putting all my effort into writing.

Whitestone: I like what you say—when you write it is the best part of you. For me, I think I am most myself when I write. Pure is a good word for it. That’s why I think there is something deeper for those who really write or who do anything else in following their passions. It makes us feel alive. It makes us our best selves.

Berlin: Yes, the writing makes me feel alive. And calm. Usually. I write, and then I do the rest of my life. I’m pure when I teach, too—a better man when I teach.

Whitestone: Well, thank you for taking the time to teach me and my students about how you push yourself to write and your fearlessness in it. We have all been made better because of it.

About the reviewer:

Sara Whitestone is a writer, photographer, and teacher. In exchange for instruction in English, her students at John Jay College in NYC introduce her to the mysteries of the world. Whenever Whitestone leads a “Why You Need to Write” workshop, she is reminded of the metaphysical healing of words. Whitestone’s own words appear in The Portland Review, North Carolina Literary Review, Piedmont Virginian, Literary Traveler, and many others. Whitestone discovers writing through travel. Her current book-in-progress is a literary thriller set in Europe that is inspired by true events. To learn more about her inner and outer adventures, visit

KGB Bar Lit Interview with Adam Berlin

KGB Bar Lit Interview with Adam Berlin


The Number of Missing: Adam Berlin Interview


Adam Berlin is the literary equivalent of the boxer who relishes the craft, the pugilist who respects the “sweet science” to such a degree that he willingly pays his dues, is patient to wait his turn and hone his skills, until the moment comes when a championship bout is offered, and with it the opportunity to step into the ring and show the world what he is made of, and why it pays to be diligent, dedicated and determined.  I use boxing as an analogy because Berlin has written well and often about a sport that has captured the imagination of many famous writers. But despite his talent in depicting the ring on the page, it is Berlin’s upcoming novel, The Number of Missing (Spuyten Duyvil), which is answering the bell to enthusiastic reviews.

Thoughtful, empathic, and full of soul, The Number of Missing is set in New York City after the 9/11 attacks, the story anchored around two characters who are dealing with a common grief stemming from the tragedy.  Berlin taps into his own pain in the book (it is dedicated to a policeman friend who perished when the Twin Towers fell), but he is careful to weave this sadness into a riveting narrative that draws readers deep into the complexity of relationships, no matter if the people involved are alive or dead.  In this regard it resurrects themes from popular novels that rose from the ashes of World War I, where writers like Ford Maddox Ford and F. Scott Fitzgerald gave the reading world damaged characters that go on with the business of living, but not really.  It is this “not really” that Berlin explores masterfully in his novel.

Here’s more from this rising writer.

Q: Tell us about the idea behind The Number of Missing and the challenges you faced writing about such a difficult tragedy.  What do you think our society has learned and still needs to learn about 9/11?

I was living downtown when 9/11 happened, on the corner of Bedford and Barrow Streets.  I used to run to the World Trade Center and back to my apartment most mornings.  As with all New Yorkers, the day stuck with me for a long time.  For months after, I’d walk out of the subway and see the towers that weren’t there.  The city seemed dead or at least not real, as if everything had slowed or stopped, and I remember feeling that I’d wake up, that all of us would wake up, and realize the day had never happened.  But it had.

In a selfish way, the day gave me a subject, a giant subject.  I had always loved post-war novels—The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, The Good Soldier—because they contained so much brutal subtext that the action on the surface was always charged even when nothing much was happening.  That was the kind of novel I’d always wanted to write, but my history didn’t include a war or the equivalent of war.  When 9/11 happened, my history, our history, changed, and I had the framework for a post-war book.

In my novel not much happens; it’s about a man named David who loses his best friend Paul in the attack.  David befriends Paul’s new wife Mel, now a young widow, and together they drink and talk and walk the city and remember Paul.  But underneath this relatively flat plot line is this momentous subtext.  The hardest part about writing The Number of Missing was to keep out even the slightest hint of sentimentality.  I wanted the grief to be pure, never Hallmark grief.  I did more revisions on this novel, many more revisions, than any novel I’d written before because I had to keep paring it down, removing all excesses so the real emotions of anger and grief were raw and exposed.

As for what we learned from this event, I don’t think much.  And that’s part of the sadness too.  Life goes on.  Twelve years have passed and unless you were scarred badly, directly, 9/11 is starting to feel like a memory with blurred edges.  Soon the Freedom Tower in NYC will become an accepted part of Manhattan’s landscape, which will blur the memory of 9/11 even more.

Q: You also have a novel coming out at the end of the year, Both Members of the Club, which probes a great deal into the sport of boxing.  Why do you think boxers have been used so effectively as characters in fiction, thinking of two famous short stories – Hemingway’s Fifty Grand and Jack London’s A Piece of Steak?

Of all sports, boxing provides the best foundation for a novel or a story.  Boxing is about man vs. man on the purest level—aside from gloves that protect a fighter’s hands, boxing has no equipment, so it’s all about physical and mental strength, one man testing himself against another.  In a classic sense that’s what a story usually does.  It pits man against man.  A character has an obstacle and has to get through that obstacle.  A fighter steps into the ring and across from him is another fighter, a human obstacle.  How he gets through that obstacle defines the fighter and defines the fight.  Many writers feel a deep connection to boxing because they see parallels between the acts of writing and boxing.  Much of a boxer’s training, which is where the real work happens, is done in solitude.  There’s a great quote from Muhammad Ali, which goes, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.” That’s what writers do.  Before a book comes out, before it’s under the lights—out in public, ready to be read—the writer is working behind the lines on his or her own.  So there’s a kinship of loneliness between writers and fighters.

As for why boxers make great characters, I think it’s because fighters have to visit uncomfortable places.  The great fighters adapt.  The less than great ones don’t—they can’t get through the hard parts of a fight just as some writers can’t get through the hard parts of the story as Hemingway would call them.  But just stepping through the ropes is an act of putting yourself in an uncomfortable place and that’s the place where good fiction resides.  So if they’re not depicted as stereotypical thugs, boxers can make for complex, layered characters.  Their presence in a story always has a hint of something violent or explosive.  That subtext, that lurking power, can make for dramatic scenes.  And of course, boxers make good characters because many of them represent the human condition.  They rise quickly and they usually fall quickly.  They’ve had their glory, some of them have been kings in the ring, champions, but with time they’re not what they were.  I think fighters recognize their mortality more than other athletes.  Boxers are damaged—from the scars you see to the more dangerous ones you don’t.  Damage is a great trait for a character.

Q:  You also teach creative writing at the collegiate level.  Describe your teaching style and what you most try to impart to young writers about the craft.

I conduct my fiction classes in a workshop format where students read and critique each other’s original work.  I’m a member of the group, but I guide the discussion, and often put in more than my two cents.  The more advanced the class, the less directing of traffic I need to do.  The thing I try to impart most on my students: I tell them to write what they know and to write what they care about.  That’s harder than it sounds.  Throughout their whole writing lives, at least their academic writing lives, students are taught to shield themselves.  I ask them to be more vulnerable, to use what they know and feel, and to bring themselves to what they write. Ultimately I want them to show their characters in the most unprotected light, which makes for resonant fiction.

Q:  You are a very eclectic writer, producing novels, stories and poetry.  What’s next for you in terms of a larger writing project?

I’m writing another boxing novel, one very different from the one that just came out.  Both Members of the Club won the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, and in many ways boxing, which is all about stripping down, from making weight to channeling the primal pull, is the perfect subject for a shorter, stripped-down novel.  But now I’m at work on a full-length novel.  My brother, who is a criminal defense lawyer and who represents a number of fight people, has also managed some professional fighters.  Years ago he managed a fighter making a comeback, and I traveled with my brother and his fighter around the country as they tried to rebuild a stalled boxing career.  I’m using that experience as the foundation for a novel that looks at the fight business, the ugly part of the fight business.  The novel is really about disappointment—boxing, ideally, is the purest of sports, but in reality the most corrupt. And the novel is about rivalry—between brothers, between races, between men and women, and, of course, between fighters in the ring. The best boxing novels I’ve read are not about boxing but about life.  I want my book to be a novel first and a boxing novel second.

In addition to The Number of Missing ( and Both Members of the Club (, Adam Berlin is author of Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of the Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill).  His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-edits the literary mag J Journal: New Writing on Justice.  For more, please visit

Review of Both Members of the Club in The Daily News

Review of Both Members of the Club in The Daily News

‘The Valley of Amazement’: book review

Amy Tan’s new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” is rather odd.It’s no surprise that the “Joy Luck Club” author again offers a literary exploration of complex mother-daughter relationships, but her tale of a Shanghai courtesan is overwrought with dramatic developments worthy of a telenovela. Really, how much can happen to one woman in a lifetime?

Tan’s novel of course brings to mind Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” as we once again delve into the intimate world of courtesans and concubines. Taking us there is 7-year-old Violet Minturn, the daughter of the proprietor of what is, in 1905, the classiest courtesan house in Shanghai. It’s also the only one run by a white woman, Lulu Minturn.

Amy Tan’s new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” explores a difficult mother-daughter relationship.

The Hidden Jade Path, as it is known to Westerners, is Violet’s erotically infused playground as a child. Given to peeking into the courtesans’ private chambers, her sex ed comes early and is explicit. What remains a mystery is her mother’s past growing up in San Francisco. Who her father is and what happened to him is another provocative, unanswered question.

Through a wicked turn of events, Violet is sold to another high-class brothel as a 15-year-old virgin courtesan to be deflowered by the highest bidder. Tan delivers a delicately phrased but quite thorough exposition on the sexual skills a courtesan must cultivate. She also immerses a reader in the exotic world they occupied as the celebrities of the time, gossiped about incessantly in the “mosquito press,” but doomed to short-lived careers and brutal penury afterward.

In “The Bully Pulpit,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts the first decade of the Progressive era.

My, how Violet’s fortunes change over the course of a lifetime. At one turn she’s a celebrated beauty, the next a concubine sexual slave in the provinces. A brief interlude of happiness in between ends when her Western lover dies and their daughter is forcibly taken from her to be raised in Croton-on-Hudson by his widow. And, there’s even more …

The plot does verge on the silly at times, but Tan is such an accomplished storyteller that she almost pulls it off. And the underlying appeal of this book is the weave she makes of the three generations of Minturn women — Violet’s daughter returns to take her place in the story — struggling to accept their fate and each other.

Adam Berlin tells the story of three friends pursuing different dreams in “Both Members of the Club.”


“The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The popular historian, and author of “Team of Rivals,” tells the tale of the muckraking press amid the larger story of the tumultuous first decade of the Progressive era when some feared the center could not hold.

“Both Members of the Club” by Adam Berlin. The author of “The Number of Missing” now tells another Manhattan-based story about a trio of friends that includes a professional fighter, an aspiring actor and an artist. The last is about to stage her first gallery show just as the fighter’s world is coming unseamed. He can’t take the punches anymore. Tough stuff.

“Tatiana: An Arkady Renko Novel” by Martin Cruz Smith. Renko, an investigator first introduced in the old-school best seller “Gorky Park,” has made the transition to New Russia, where the crimes are as dirty and nasty as ever. A reporter is murdered, and following the trail, Renko is led to Kaliningrad, a Cold War “secret” city where only bad things happen.

Review of Both Members of the Club in The Daily News

Review of Both Members of the Club on

Both Members of the Club

By Robert Ecksel on November 7, 2013

Both Members of the Club

 “Both Members of the Club,” Adam Berlin’s long awaited boxing novel, has just been released by Texas Review Press…


Both Members of the Club, Adam Berlin’s third novel, has just been released. Published by Texas Review Press and winner of the 2012 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize, Both Members of the Club, which shares a title with the iconic George Bellows’ painting of the same name, is his long awaited boxing novel.

Berlin is the most writerly of boxing journalists. In an age when anyone with an iPhone and a thought rattling around their head believes they are a writer, Berlin reminds us that writing is an art. It’s a serious endeavor meant to be taken seriously, and no place for ramblings disguised as prose, however facile but formless those ramblings may be.

To call Both Members of the Club a boxing novel is, however, something of a misnomer. Although one of the three main characters, Billy Carlyle, is a boxer on the downside of his career, the novel isn’t so much Billy’s story as the story of Billy and his two closest friends. One is an aspiring actor named Gabriel, our narrator. The other is a female artist named Sam. The three of them are in New York City, by circumstance rather than by design, but it’s where they’ve elected to pursue their fate; it’s also where fate has elected to pursue them.

New York is less a backdrop than a character in the book. Berlin, a longtime resident of the Big Apple, captures the pizzazz and paucity, the marvel and malfunction as only a gifted writer can. A third of the book takes place in Paris, which Berlin brings to life with his eloquent, Spartan style. But Both Members of the Club, while anchored by boxing, is less about Manhattan and Paris than about friendship and loyalty, hopes and aspirations, dreams and nightmares, with a sprinkling of delusion thrown in for good measure.

Berlin’s connection to boxing is profound. The fight scenes in Both Members of the Club, in particular, are rendered with such deftness that it feels less like reading a book than visiting the cinema. He understands that boxing is the ultimate proving ground for masculinity, with all that that means and does not. He also understands that outside the arena, with its screaming fans and testosterone fueled feats of derring-do, awaits the boulevard of broken dreams. But Berlin doesn’t overdo it. He is a master of restraint. His writing is more elegant than muscular; but however polished, it has an edge that suits both the material and the author himself.

Novels, like novelists, are a dying breed. The number of people who read books instead of tweets has never been smaller. While we may be experiencing the twilight of literacy, there will always be an audience for fine writing, an audience appreciative of the work that goes into creating something meaningful. They may be a minority. They may be dinosaurs in a world of butterflies. But storytelling, a seemingly lost art, remains central to the human condition, and can be found if one searches, can be found if one not only looks, but sees.

Teddy Atlas observed that Both Members of the Club asks, “What do we fight for?” That is true. But Both Members of the Club asks another question, and one with no easy answers: Which fight is next?

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