Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Piece of Steak

Once upon a time short story writers could make very good money. In the days before movie theaters and television, magazines like The Saturday Evening Post offered some of the best entertainment around. And they paid well to feature these marquis writers on their covers.

A century ago the highest paid of these scribes was a writer named Jack London. London was no artsy fartsy powderpuff sitting on hillsides waiting for inspiration to strike. For Jack London writing was a craft and a discipline. Day in, day out he slammed out one thousand words of prose. By the time his life was cut short at age forty, his output had been immense – as many as fifty volumes of stories, novels, plays and essays.

Many of us know him for the short story “To Build a Fire,” an intense, tightly woven man vs. nature chiller that takes place up in the Klondike. Or perhaps we remember his “Call of the Wild.” And while there are many great London books and stories I could recommend, my all time favorite has to be “A Piece of Steak.”

First published in The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 182, November 1909, “A Piece of Steak” is the tale of an aging boxer. London places a lens on a single fight in boxer Tom King’s life and reveals the motivations, dreams and disappointments of this man’s entire life. It is a study of determination and will. It is also, by extension, a potent picture of the eternal struggle between youth and age, all of it hinging on a piece of steak.

Steak

Nothing makes the mouth water like a well-prepared cut of beef. Perhaps that’s why Americans eat more beef than any other meat. Indeed, no meat is more popular than steak. Whether Porterhouse, rib eye, T-bone or top sirloin, we know a good thing when we taste it.

For food value steak contains many nutrients needed by the human body. The vitamins you get from eating steak include niacin, riboflavin, and thiamine. Steak is an excellent source of protein, which is needed to build and maintain body cells. Iron and phosphorous are also important minerals our body requires. Plus it’s an excellent source of energy. Which brings us back to our story.

SPOILER ALERT

The opening sentence of “A Piece of Steak” not only tells the whole story, it foreshadows the end as well. “With the last morsel of bread Tom King wiped his plate clean of the last particle of flour gravy and chewed the resulting mouthful in a slow and meditative way.” Tom King is a professional prize fighter who has fallen on hard times. His wife looks on in silence as he wipes his plate clean, a meal of bread and gravy. That morning he’d wakened with a longing for a piece of steak but it was not to be. And for want of this one morsel of nourishment Tom King will later fail.

Tom King’s opponent was a young boxer from New Zealand named Sandel. Since nobody in Australia knew what this kid Sandel was capable of, they were feeding him one of the “old uns.” That was King’s role, and King knew it because he had once been the up and comer, the hungry young fighter seeking fame and fortune.

As Tom King walked the two miles to the arena he reflected on his life as a boxer -- the big money, the sharp, glorious fights, the following of eager flatterers, the slaps on the back “and the glory of it, the yelling houses, the whirlwind finish, the referee’s ‘King wins!’ and his name in the sporting columns next day.”

But King now understood that it was the old ones he had been putting away. He had been Youth, rising. They were Age, sinking. This time, it was King who stood in the way of another young man’s dreams. Sandel was the aspiring young heavyweight. King was the barrier that Sandel would have to pummel his way through.

“And as Tom King thus ruminated, there came to his stolid vision the form of youth, glorious youth, rising exultant and invincible, supple of muscle and silken of skin, with heart and lungs that had never been tired and torn and that laughed at limitation of effort. Yes, youth was the nemesis.”

London’s vivid portrayals of what goes on in the ring are probably unmatched in fiction. In fact, another of Jack London’s boxing stories was so powerful that Gene Tunney, after reading it, announced his retirement. Lest you be kept wondering, in “A Piece of Steak” Sandel puts the older man away. Tom King fought a good fight, careful, deliberate and determined. But youth continually renews itself while the old un’s strength is expended.

This one, on my short list of favorite short stories, is a recommended reading.

EdNote: This is a midly revised reprint of a 2008 post.

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