The Real McCoy

The Real McCoy

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by Darin Strauss

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From Darin Strauss, the bestselling author of Chang and Eng (A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year), comes the unforgettable story of "Kid" McCoy: boxer, jewel thief, scam artist, and the most married man in America. A fascinating mirror of the tumultuous backdrop of America at the turn of the century, The Real McCoy is "a muscular and


From Darin Strauss, the bestselling author of Chang and Eng (A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year), comes the unforgettable story of "Kid" McCoy: boxer, jewel thief, scam artist, and the most married man in America. A fascinating mirror of the tumultuous backdrop of America at the turn of the century, The Real McCoy is "a muscular and entertaining novel about lies, scams, flimflams, and the inconvenience of truth" (GQ)

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Our byword for honesty may be built on a lie, and in Strauss's capable hands, thereby hangs quite a tale...McCoy himself is the novel's greatest accomplishment: a made-up figure, a fiction and, for all that, completely real." —The New York Times Book Review

"Darin Strauss is one of America's handful of young, great novelists...If his debut was a carnival, this is a World's Fair. It's that ambitious, that fun." —The Austin Chronicle
In Chang and Eng, Darin Strauss offered a realistic novel based on the stranger-than-fiction lives of P. T. Barnum's original Siamese twins. Here he exposes the rough-edged exploits of "Kid" McCoy, a boxer/scam artist loosely based on the elusive Charles "Kid" McCoy (1872–1940), a world-class boxer who spent eight years in San Quentin. The "real" McCoy was a fighter with such a penchant for fixed fights and double-crosses that his nickname became a moniker for generations of emulators, both pugilistic and criminal. Strauss' novel captures the gritty aspirations and confused love of a clever barnstorming trickster.
Vanity Fair
Highly imaginative
San Francisco Chronicle
The Real McCoy's strength, dynamism and sorrow will make it one of the most quintessentially American novels published this year.
January does twinkle and glitter and dazzle with a writer's love for the written word.
...a muscular and entertaining novel about lies, scams, flimflams, and the inconvenience of truth.
Chris Barsanti
Starting with little more than a historical tidbit about a boxer named Kid McCoy—after whom the phrase "the real McCoy" was supposedly coined—lauded Chang and Eng author Strauss whips up a bustling story of showmanship at the dawn of America's modern age. Strauss' McCoy is really just a skinny kid from the Indiana heartland called Virgil, who steals his name from a deceased boxer and makes it big after hooking up with the P.T. Barnum–like Chinese con artist Johnnie Gold, known as "the Buddha of Swindle." Using a brash mix of con games, unusual stamina and a unique "corkscrew" punch developed while watching fighters in a Chinese railroad camp, McCoy becomes a championship boxer and the toast of turn-of-the-century New York. Not being a real boxer or even a real McCoy eventually catches up with him, and the novel turns from a bittersweet, raucous comedy to a bathetic tragedy. Strauss has an obvious affection for this time in American history, and the period's electric hum of optimism surges through these pages with a crackling intensity.
Publishers Weekly
Strauss follows a brilliant debut novel (Chang and Eng) with more fictive doctoring of history in this daring, unique reenactment of the life of reed-thin, bone-weary Virgil Selby, who came to be known as Kid McCoy: a talented turn-of-the-century boxer, professional flimflammer and bigamist. The book opens with a bogus charity benefit exhibition boxing match on the first night of the new millennium (1900) as Kid McCoy fights and defeats welterweight champ Tommy Ryan, garnering the crown for himself. The narrative backtracks several years as McCoy, a young runaway still developing his boxing form, meets Johnnie Gold, a philosophical Chinese grifter who initiates McCoy into a life of swindling and deceit, peddling snake oil remedies and betting on fixed horse races. Lonely at times, McCoy settles on a timid department store clerk, and though he's not in love, he marries her, if only to test his new powers of flimflam. When he moves to Manhattan, vaudeville actress Susan Fields catches his eye and they quickly marry, just in time for a spectacular rematch with Tommy Ryanwhich is set up for McCoy to win but backfires, sending McCoy into a depression compounded by an unexpected visit from his father. Several championship fights, another marriage and a cinematic jewel heist later, McCoy emerges as the defeated narrator of his own madcap tale. Apart from the book's awkwardly shifting time line (a device that too often steals McCoy's thunder), this book is well written, comprehensively researched, and stylish, sure to score at the cash register. The big question on fans' lips: Whom will Strauss consecrate next? (June) Forecast: Nothing can trump the Siamese twins of Chang and Eng in the attention-getting department, but the many literary devotees of boxing will be captivated by this book, as will fans of Strauss's very successful first novel. A six-figure marketing campaign, including radio advertising in New York, and a 10-city author tour should help ensure strong sales for this sophomore effort. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Set in brawling turn-of-the-century New York, Strauss's second novel (after Chang and Eng) is loosely based on the life of boxer Norman "Kid McCoy" Selby, whose nom de guerre is one of the possible sources of the title's catch phrase. The product of an unhappy Indiana childhood, Selby (called Virgil Selby here) takes the name of a fighter he has let die following a match. After some lessons in swindling from a Chinese flimflam artist named Johnny Gold, the self-created McCoy moves to New York, soon winning the welterweight title by virtue of a scam. The title brings him fame and the love of his life, stage actress Susan Fields, and, in an ironic twist central to the novel, turns him into that great emblem of authenticity, "the real McCoy." Fascinating in its exploration of the multiple facets of Selby's personality, this is a powerful and heartbreakingly American tale of identity and loss, marred only by Strauss's somewhat didactic use of his protagonist as a symbol of societal change. Recommended for all public libraries. [For an interview with Strauss, see p. 97.] Lawrence Rungren, Merrimack Valley Lib. Consortium, Andover, MA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
There's ample entertainment value in this rather desperately inventive second historical novel by the author of the highly praised debut tale Chang and Eng (2000). This time, Strauss's real-life subject is "Kid McCoy," the welterweight boxer and confidence man whose duplicitous exploits paradoxically made his name synonymous with authenticity and honesty. His episodic story is told by a garrulous narrator whose identity is withheld until the closing pages (though many readers will surely guess it), and jumps back and forth between 1895, when the spindly Indiana youngster born Virgil Selby first drifts into prizefighting and "flimflammery," and 1900, the year in which McCoy claims the welterweight title. In the hastily overstuffed final hundred pages, Strauss spells out the consequences of his antihero's unsavory affiliation with grotesque Chinese con man Johnnie Gold ("a bush-league P.T. Barnum"), enduring obsession with his fiercely independent showgirl ex-wife Susan Fields, comeback bid (after losing his welterweight crown) in a challenge to heavyweight champion Gentleman Jim Corbett, and last-ditch attempt "to remake himself again" via "The Flimflam to End All Flimflams." A lot of this works, because Strauss possesses a fluid, racy style and a knack for throwing quickly sketched colorful figures into the mix (e.g., veteran pug "Jabbing Jew" Joe Choinsky, H.L. Mencken-like reporter H.H. Measures, even nondescript fighter William York Tindall-who shares his name with an eminent Joyce scholar). President Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain make brief appearances, and Strauss's re-creations of pugilistic spectacles and Tammany Hall political bloodbaths are acutely, amusingly detailed. Theproblem: too many of the boxing and flimflamming scenes are too similar, to the point of tedious redundancy. Even Strauss's complex presentation of Selby/McCoy as a compulsive liar with very genuine immortal longings in him isn't quite enough to make the chaos of colorful parts gel convincingly. Not as good as Chang and Eng, then, but not bad at all. Strauss remains one of the most interesting and promising of younger American novelists.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.32(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.91(d)

Read an Excerpt

'Zounds, McCoy

Here was a champion before he closed his hand into a fist. The boy's gumption was like the full steam of a locomotive. Plus he was a born liar.

In flat Indiana his father told him, "Falsity's in your blood"-with a voice deep and dark like a thief's pocket. "Go and make yourself someone finer." Before too long the boy made himself several someones finer.


When we pick up his story, he liked to think he'd never been Virgil Selby, and he certainly wasn't yet St. Corkscrew LeFist, or the other empty title he'd come to call himself. In December 1899, on the happy morning he earned lasting fame, this top-notch fibber, "scientific" brawler, future political hopeful, sometime poet, jewel thief and movie star was just about always McCoy.

McCoy had a wooer's slicked-up brown hair and the sweet temper of a lucky man. But even using that celebrated name the kid was slight, a cousin to the ribbed washboards women had in those days: not an ideal case for a guy intent on the welterweight crown. O, ambition!

"It's the hour for Kid McCoy," he was laughing, and the look he gave the mirror weighed more than he did. "What he's been expecting all these years and here I am to delight in it." This was one of the last mornings of that century, and who'd have dared say the twenty year-old flimflammer couldn't have taken the world before sunset?

Picture our milieu: Ronny and Ray's Sports Club on the Lower East Side of Manhattan felt about a hundred sticky degrees any season of the year, more or less suffocating, sweat heavy in its dead air. This was the gym the zealous went to-unpleasant enough to worry your skin and the one place in all New York McCoy felt relaxed. He had his own latchkey, and since six a.m. the battler had been waiting inside for the welterweight champ Tommy Ryan, the sort of pug whose head echoed if you tapped it.

By seven, the gym was still mostly empty. A bunch of us straggled in and out, though, trainers and towel boys and the fighter himself, and it was all of us who were responsible for spreading this story, even if accounts fail to mention that. Does the bible tell you about the beetle who took note from the manger?

"You know something, fellows?" McCoy was shirtless and scrawny and all keyed up as he boxed shadows in the ring. Most people still knew him only as the sparring partner Ryan had given a humiliating lesson in boxing a few years earlier. "Come ten minutes' time," he said, "I'm going to start gathering the bricks to build my American Dream."

One of the towel boys said he didn't know lying was part of the American Dream.

"Where you been?" And McCoy gave the littlest of smiles, which a stranger might have mistaken for cynical, or an expression of menace. I recognized it as McCoy's self-possession getting the better of his giant enthusiasm, and I fell in love with the man for the thousandth, the ten thousandth time.

The champ Tommy Ryan finally turned up with his pretty if plump new wife Eleanor on his arm. "'Zounds, McCoy," was the brawny Champ's hello, his voice mild and innocent as the look on his guilefree face. His hair was a haystack. "Jab high," he said.

"Rabbit-punch low," answered McCoy-this was some dead language from a brotherhood long gone.

"What's all that to-do in your telegram? You get me here for a little of the old..." Without letting Eleanor's hand out of his, Ryan pantomimed the act of sparring. (Tommy Ryan was the finest welterweight breathing and floored by the soft of one woman's hand.) Over and again the champ blinked his left eye; at thirty, he had a crushed duct. A tear waddled down his shaven cheek.

"Hello, Mrs. Ryan." McCoy could show a lot of warmth toward anyone. "I didn't expect to see you"-although of course he had expected her. "Now, Tommy," he said, "I have a big proposition, champ, that's why I asked for you." McCoy made sure not to look at Ryan's terrible huge fisted hand.

"Ooh, a proposition!" Eleanor Ryan gazed at her husband even when he wasn't looking her way. "It sounds an absolute pip, Thomas." Eleanor was a twenty-six-year-old schoolteacher who read poetry, and was therefore in a state of high romance all the time. (Don't tisk tisk. In my century an old pug could insult a girl and not have every female from Seattle to Miami take it personally.)

"'Zounds, McCoy," said Ryan again, climbing into the ring in his street clothes, his smile a show of nothing more genial than some muscles in his cheeks.

"What're we talking here, McCoy?" Ryan began to circle McCoy absent-mindedly, cutting off the space between the skinny kid and the ropes, dukes up. Even wearing buffalo-hide ankle boots and an overcoat with chinchilla lining, the champ was at all times a fighter. Ryan's punching knuckles were clearly thinking: Let me at that skinny McCoy.

"A benefit exhibition," McCoy said, himself a source of energy bouncing on its toes. Imagine a whirlwind coiling this way then that across the canvas. "For charity and it wouldn't count. We'd stage the whole thing."

The champ stopped to stare into McCoy's bobbing face. "Hey, you got a black eye or some such?"

McCoy didn't quit dancing; more life in him than a congress of Ryans. "Who would be fast enough to tag me, Champ?"

"You got like rings around your eyes, McCoy. Maybe it's you're so skinny."

"Skinny enough to give you a run for your..." Sometimes for effect McCoy didn't finish his sentences. He'd borrowed the affectation from the great Chinese flimflammer Johnnie Gold. "I've gotten better than you know, Tommy," he said.

Other undersized pugs would find a lesson in McCoy's shuffle, his spindle legs, in the spiral of his trademark coil punch. If every ounce of the kid weren't in constant motion, pent-up energy might have jiggled his insides off their tendons.

"If that's your say so," Ryan was sighing, and from his voice it was plain the champ still saw Kid McCoy as the sparring youngster who caved at the hint of punishment. Ryan had earned immortal renown with his 76th-round knockout of Mysterious Billy Smith in 1895.

"Now, for real, Kid," Ryan was saying, "what benefit?"

The champ'd remained undefeated in forty-six fights over ten years. (He too had taken a ring name: Ryan was born Joseph O'Youngs, and for a short time he'd gone by "Nonpareil Andrew Chiariglione." Now some called him "The Stinging Bee.")

McCoy said, "Raise money for immigrant literacy or some other bilk. It's some show next week." The boy's cheeks had gone shiny with the exercise. "A pretend fight, these guys are proposing for this charity set-up. 'Figure a little magnanimity on your part could make the newspapers quit hating you. The ones who call you 'The Mick.'"

"'The Mick who's none too quick.' Ain't that what it is?" Ryan looked around the dusky gym as if hunting for unfriendly journalists. He saw only his schoolteacher of a wife and a few towel boys in unlit recesses. "Ah, what'a penny-a-liners know about the ring game, huh?"

Eleanor, rising on tiptoes, cut in: "A fight with no pay day, Mr. McCoy?" She scrunched her little nose as if calling to mind something gone to rot. "I hope you'll take no offense, but I wouldn't imagine 'free of charge' is your cup of tea." Her blouse-sleeves showed a peek of her bare forearms, and the skin was awful pimpled.

"Mrs. Ryan, it's not really a fight, and it doesn't have to be free." McCoy bowed his head at her, as if at any time she might start treating him with respect. "'Way I figure, we arrange it about as violent as a ballet. But that's not all." He now stood still enough to put his arm around Ryan, but his fingers still tapped a pulse on the Champ's shoulder. "The guys who want to organize this fuss are due here any minute, a Mr. Hill and a Mr. Overton," McCoy said. "They're talking a thousand for you, Tom, and five hundred for me. 'Figure together we could squeeze them for a lot more; scheme out a way to up their ante. Of course, Champ"-here McCoy smiled his widest of the morning, showing a set of surprisingly gray teeth-"it's up to you. But I heard Tommy Ryan could flimflam a little in the old days, and it'd be good press against those who say marriage has changed you."

Eleanor squinted at her husband. She chewed on her lip as if it were bubble gum.

All the while McCoy eyed her. He had such acute sensitivity to the changeable ambitions of men-and women-it wouldn't have surprised me if he was of the same cloth as those balloons that tell specialists which way the wind's blowing in China.

Right before Eleanor next spoke she inhaled as if she were about to walk through smoke and didn't want to waste air. "Thomas," she said, "maybe you and Mr. McCoy should fight, even if it's for free."

"Free?" McCoy said. "Oh no, ma'am, I don't fight boredom for free. I just reckoned there was some angle-"

"Eleanor," said the Champ, "darling." Another teardrop tiptoed the length of his cheek. "I haven't trained a whit since the honeymoon. I could barely spar out my own grandma next week."

"You're modest, Thomas, lovelily so," said Eleanor, the easy-grader part of her nature showing. "But it shan't be a real fight, isn't that so, Mr. McCoy? Play acting, so to speak. And for charity." She made sure she'd caught her husband's good eye. "Charity looks quite good, especially if there's no chance of anyone getting hurt."

McCoy saw his opening. "I suppose that's right, Mrs. Ryan." He scratched at his chin to look contemplative. "Like a theatrical production, we could do it. At any rate, this pair of malooks Hill and Overton wants to pay us real money. If it's for a right cause anyhow-"

"Who'd put up a thousand dollars to see me fight you?" The champ's voice crept on tolerant contempt. His genius for wearing down rivals in the ring had been unequaled in the budding history of this mad sport.

Here, I thought, McCoy would mention that he'd had his own big victories of late. Knocked out Honeyblast in six. Dago Frank in two. But his smile stayed relaxed-if a curious relaxed. Still, his light eyes clouded just a bit. The smallest reaction.

As McCoy turned again to Eleanor, the shadow had passed from his face. Mrs. Ryan still looked to be in favor of this "charity event"; the key to the whole flimflam was getting her approval.

"I can hardly fathom it myself," McCoy said. "The money's as good as the cause." (Later, when real success came, he would delight in a life Selby had only dreamt of: Selby had squirreled away cash, but as Kid McCoy he kept enough on his person after one joyous streak to add up his pockets and find $40,000.)

"Doesn't it sound too good, though?" Ryan said.

"Well, Tommy," McCoy winking, "maybe I mistook you for someone else. If you've still got that champion's belt of yours, check it. See if you aren't the winner I took you for."

"Listen," the champ growing heated, "I think I know who I am, McCoy."

"It's tricky, though. Could be today you find yourself a different guy?" And next, gently, "Tommy, you've forgotten more boxing than I ever knew, but here's a chance for us both to get the cash without breaking a..."

Ryan tilted his head. He breathed in through his nose and out again-his big eyes trained on McCoy. The champ held stock still; then he started into the faintest of smiles. There it was: the Sucker's Smirk. It often turns up in the eye first, a flicky show of happiness. Next it skates down the jaw, wavering near the mouth like a bee around a hive, and soon it riffles under the flesh to shiver the chin. In a good flimflam the sucker's whole face will burst like a potato when it's cooked.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Our byword for honesty may be built on a lie, and in Strauss's capable hands, thereby hangs quite a tale...McCoy himself is the novel's greatest accomplishment: a made-up figure, a fiction and, for all that, completely real." —The New York Times Book Review

"Darin Strauss is one of America's handful of young, great novelists...If his debut was a carnival, this is a World's Fair. It's that ambitious, that fun." —The Austin Chronicle

Meet the Author

Darin Strauss is the award-winning author of the national and international bestseller Chang and Eng, as well as its screenplay for Disney Films and director Julie Taymor.  His work has been translated into 14 languages and he teaches at New York University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Real McCoy 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would just like to add, for the sake of sparing readers from retaining misinformation, that the phrase 'The Real McKoy' was not inspired by Kid McKoy. Elijah McKoy's lubricating cup, which he invented in the mid 1800s, is the true inspiration of the phrase which was used in print years before the birth of Kid McKoy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Beautifully writen and highly imaginative. I normally am not a fan of historical fiction, but I loved every page of The Real McCoy! The twist with the narrator was especially effective. If you liked Cheng and Eng, I would definitely recommend this book.