May 24, 2007


Peak. By Roland Smith. Harcourt. $17.

Standing Eight: The Inspiring Story of Jesus “El Matador” Chavez. By Adam Pitluk. Da Capo. $14.95.

      Although one of these books is fiction and the other fact, they share a theme: young people rise above themselves to attain greater success than others ever thought they could. In Peak, which is a novel, the “rising above” is literal. The title refers both to the protagonist, 14-year-old Peak Marcello, and to the mountain peak that he is determined to conquer: nothing less than Mount Everest. The story starts not in Asia but in New York City, where Peak’s penchant for illegally scaling skyscrapers gets him injured and into trouble with the police. It also gets another boy killed: that boy, who collected newspaper articles about Peak’s exploits, decided to try to climb a building himself even though he had never climbed before. He fell off and died. Although Peak is not responsible, the legal system tries to find a way to make an example of him – until Peak’s father, a climber long absent from Peak’s life, shows up in court and offers to take custody of his son…getting him away from the city and the glare of publicity. All this is wildly improbable, but there would be no story if the judge didn’t agree to place Peak on probation until he reaches age 18 and let his father take charge of him. And so Peak’s real adventure begins, as his father takes him to Tibet for a climb up Everest – which, if Peak makes it, will make him the youngest person ever to reach the mountain’s summit. Much of Roland Smith’s book’s progress is drearily familiar from countless other coming-of-age novels: the setbacks, the successes, the personality clashes and the physical dangers of the climb. But the exotic setting is attractive, the rigors of mountaineering are well communicated, and Peak’s eventual discovery of the value of selflessness is satisfying, if rather predictable.

      There is less predictability in Standing Eight, but of course real life is rarely as neat as fiction. Adam Pitluk here tells a particularly gritty story of a Mexican boxer whose story could be that of many poor but determined youths for whom the boxing ring is a way toward respect (if not, to many eyes, respectability) and a decent living (if not riches). This is a well-told story but a rather curious one: Pitluk is a journalist but not a boxing writer, and his fascination seems to be far more with Jesus Chavez than with the sport (which not everyone acknowledges as a sport). Yet it is boxing that is at the center of the positive side of Standing Eight. There is plenty of material for the negative side – illegal immigration, gang life, a prison sentence, deportation – and Pitluk details this early part of Chavez’s life with intensity and sympathy. It is, in many ways, the most interesting part of the Chavez story: illegal entry into the United States at age seven, gang life in Chicago despite what seems to have been a highly supportive family and good performance at school and in athletics, and an eventual three-year prison term in Chavez’s mid-teens. The reasons for Chavez’s failures in society, despite a more solid upbringing than many troubled youths receive, remain a mystery here – Pitluk is more interested in moving the tale ahead, as Chavez relocates to Austin, starts training to become a professional boxer, and later returns to Mexico (where he is now considered a foreigner and endures some additional hard times, including being poisoned). Non-fans of boxing are unlikely to find this later, more successful part of the Chavez story as uplifting as Pitluk himself clearly finds it. There is something inherently positive in any tale of a downtrodden youth who eventually makes good. But Chavez, although he came from a poor family, was not really raised in terrible circumstances – his failures appear to have been mostly of his own making. His success was, too, but that scarcely makes his story an inspiring one.

No comments:

Post a Comment