Sunday You Learn How to Box: A Novelby Bil Wright
Fourteen-year-old Louis Bowman is in a boxing ring a housing project circa 1968 fighting "just to get to the end of the round." Sharing the ring is his mother, Jeanette Stamps, a ferociously stubborn woman battling for her own dreams to be realized; his stepfather, Ben Stamps, the would-be savior, who becomes the sparring partner to them both; and the
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Fourteen-year-old Louis Bowman is in a boxing ring a housing project circa 1968 fighting "just to get to the end of the round." Sharing the ring is his mother, Jeanette Stamps, a ferociously stubborn woman battling for her own dreams to be realized; his stepfather, Ben Stamps, the would-be savior, who becomes the sparring partner to them both; and the enigmatic Ray Anthony Robinson, the neighborhood "hoodlum," in purple polyester pants, who sets young Louis's heart spinning with the first stirrings of sexual longing. Bil Wright deftly evokes an unrelenting world with quirky humor and clear-eyed unsentimentality.
Judy Lightfoot Seattle Times The patient, subtle rendering of one boy's developing emotional life leads us right into the mystery of how love grows in us all.
New York World With striking immediacy, keen insight, and grace of language, Wright captures the anguish of adolescence and the complex bond between mothers and sons...riveting.
Chase Madar The New York Times Understated humor marks Bil Wright's first novel, Sunday You Learn How to Box... the absence of sentimentality is refreshing.
The Philadelphia Tribune A realistic, poignant story. It grabs you from the beginning, digs at your heartstrings, and doesn't let go.
Karin Cook author of What Girls Learn Sunday You Learn How to Box has all the rhythm, drama, and dance of a good fight but in this case the battle matters more because the soul of a boy is at stake. In elegant and agile prose, Wright matches brutality with passion and heartbreak with hope. And a man in purple polyester pants walks off with the prize. This book is a knockout.
Gerry Gomez Pearlberg author of Marianne Fauthfull's Cigarette and editor of Queer Dog: Homo/Pub/Poetry A mother's uphill battle to forge a better life for her family, her young son's struggle to survive in a world where the lines of "manhood" and "masculinity" are harshly drawn Bil Wright's wrenching novel about growing up gay is sometimes crushing, sometimes exhilarating, but always full of grace. In this elegant and honest book, Wright engages difficult themes of love exhausted and renewed, dreams derailed and put back on track again, and the stubborn will to create one's destiny instead of falling prey to it. I was powerfully moved by Sunday You Learn How to Box. Its images singe. Its characters gleam.
Stephanie Grant author of The Passion of Alice Sunday You Learn How to Box is smart and sexy. Bil Wright's gorgeous first novel overflows with wit and lyricism, the wonders of desire, and the brutality of racism. Louis shows us the power of salvation when the savior and saved are one I couldn't put it down!
Read an Excerpt
Ben had been in the bathroom with the door open for at least an hour, shaving and whistling in his suit pants and stocking cap. I was downstairs in the living room reading the Sunday comics, but I could look upstairs from my chair and see him. He always left the door open when he was shaving. And he always whistled when he shaved. He'd go through one song pretty simply, then start at the beginning again, doing a jazz version of the same thing, except this time he'd add a trill like opera singers do with their voices. So it was kind of a jazz-opera whistle.
Mom was in the kitchen banging the pots around and slamming the oven door. I couldn't tell if she was mad because she thought I should be upstairs doing homework instead of reading the comics, or if she was furious at Ben for something I hadn't heard about yet.
He was really showing off now, patting aftershave on his cheeks in time to the whistling. Lorelle stood at the foot of the stairs staring up at him, swaying, hypnotized by the same trills I rolled, then crossed my eyes at in disgust. Ben whistled himself into the bedroom, put on a shirt, tie, his suit jacket and the double-breasted black coat he kept in a fancy plastic cleaners bag and almost never wore.
The whole time he was shaving, dressing, patting and whistling, Mom threw silverware onto the table, piece by piece, each fork and knife harder and louder than the last. Finally Ben came downstairs, jingling his car keys as another layer of accompaniment. Mom flew out of the kitchen. She had on a dark green dress dusted with white fingerprints all over it. She looked as though she'd dipped her hands in flour, then slapped herself from head to toe. There was flour in her hair, on her forehead, up and down her stockings. With her chest leading and her arms beating the air, she was a colored woman windmill spinning across the floor, spitting flour.
"Where are you going, mister?" she yelled into the space between his shoulders.
Ben kept walking toward the front door. He was doing a long, spiderleg stroll at an easy, good-time pace with Mom screaming at his back. He answered her, looking straight ahead like she was actually in front of him instead of behind.
"I am going to a Christmas party." He sounded cheerful, cocky, like he was about to add, "And I'm leaving your screaming butt here." Mom called him a Christmas party liar and asked him why the hell he didn't have the guts to say he was on his way to deliver his Christmas bonus to his woman. I always tried to picture this woman Mom was so sure Ben was going to. But there were never any real clues that I could put together.
He stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder to face her. He smiled as if he was looking at somebody who was going to disappear in a few minutes so it didn't matter what she said to him.
"Cause you already know that, don't you?" He turned around, opened the door and kept walking.
"Yeah, but what you don't know, mister bastard, is that I'm coming with you."
Mom ran past me to the hall closet. I jumped out of the chair as though she'd yanked a rope tied around my neck. When she whizzed back by me again in the grizzly, following Ben out to the parking lot, I turned to Lorelle. With a look of terror in her eyes, she asked, "Louis, are you leaving me?"
"You stay here. I'll be right back." I ran after Mom. She was running now to keep up with Ben, even though he still didn't look like he was in much of a hurry. The grizzly looked like it was covered in powdered snow. Mom kept slipping on the ice yelling, "Christmas party, huh? Well, let's go!" But she didn't go down. I did.
By the time I got up, Ben had made it out to the parking lot, right up to the car. I thought, this will be the fight, because I knew he wouldn't let her get in with him. When he opened the door on his side, though, Mom pushed right past him. Ben stopped for a second -- she'd surprised him -- but then he got in too, closed the door and leaned over to start the engine.
I ran around to her side and pounded on the window. "Get out of the car, Mom. Get out."
She leaned over and opened her door. "Go back, Louis! Go back and stay with Lorelle!"
Instead, I got in the car, she moved to the middle and started beating on Ben. "Christmas party, huh!? Christmas party!?" with a punch for each one. Ben blocked her, grinning. "That's right. That's where I'm going." He grabbed both her arms so that all she could do was throw her whole body at him, kicking. I tried to pull her away, but there was too much of the grizzly for me to get a hold on her. Ben wouldn't let go. I reached past her and hit him myself.
Ben's grin disappeared. He held Mom off with one arm, and punched me square in the mouth, his high school ring knocking against my teeth. Now Mom went crazier, pulling herself free from him. Her fist thudded into his chest, his face, his chest again.
Ben's eyes popped wide like a jolt of electricity had gone through his body. His arms flopped to his sides. Mom stopped screaming. She looked at Ben, confused, as if in the six years they'd been married, she never remembered seeing him look exactly the way he did at that moment. We both watched him, waiting for him to move. It looked as if he was concentrating on how to steer the car out of the space it was in; like Mom and me had disappeared just that quickly and it was time for him to get on with driving to wherever he was going.
Then he made this noise as if he was pushing all the air out of his lungs. I watched his mouth. The color in his lips was fading, leaking out with the air. Till there wasn't any sound or color or air at all.
Mom whispered, "Je-sus." I think she knew then that he'd died, but I didn't. I never thought about him dying. I didn't think Ben could die.
When Isabelle Jackson ran up to the window, I realized how many people were standing around the car. Right away, I began to dream I could drive through all of them. Ben's green Pontiac with the bird shit splattered across the windows was lifting off at the end of the parking lot and ascending high above the projects, sailing out over the city.
I thought the cop might arrest me for not answering his questions. I knew I wasn't too young. Other kids had been hauled away in handcuffs. For stealing, mostly. But nobody, not even the worst ones, had killed anybody.
I stood there waiting in the cold between the cop and Miss Odessa. She was making sure everybody would think she was an important part of what was going on. It probably looked to some people like she was helping the cop by not letting me get away, or to somebody else like maybe she was protecting me from him because my mother wasn't there.
Mom came back carrying Lorelle as the ambulance was leaving the parking lot with Ben. Lorelle looked more confused than she had when I'd left her. Mom never carried her anywhere. Lorelle was tall for her age and too heavy to be lifted, except in emergencies.
Nevertheless, Mom looked pretty calm, if a little winded, until she saw that Ben wasn't completely gone.
"Oh God, Ben! Oh God!" she called out to the back of the ambulance.
Miss Odessa ran over to her, but the sound Mom made then scared Miss Odessa so badly, she jumped back like she'd run over to a howling, killer dog. Mom continued half-calling, half-barking to Ben in the ambulance, although it was now completely out of view. The cops, the neighbors, no one took their eyes off her. Lorelle pulled away and stared, looking more curious than afraid. I studied Mom's eyes, the way she clamped her bottom teeth against her upper lip, how she clenched her fists around Lorelle's thighs so that the skin above and beneath her wedding ring looked pale and swollen around it. Nobody ever wanted to know what Mom would do next more than I did. But with Mom, I could never even begin to guess.
Copyright © 2000 by Bil Wright
What People are saying about this
(Sharony Green, author of Cuttin' The Rug Under The Moonlit Sky)
(E. Lynn Harris, New York Times bestselling author of Abide With Me)
(Paule Marshall, author of Brown Girl, Brownstones and Daughters)
(Gerry Gomez Pearlberg, author of Marianne Faithfull's Cigarette and editor of Queer Dog: Homo/Pup/Poetry (1997 Lambda Book Award Finalist))
(Samuel R. Delany, author of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue)
(April Sinclair, bestselling author of Coffee Will Make You Black and I Left My Back Door Open)
(Karin Cook, author of What Girls Learn)
(Stephanie Grant, author of The Passion Of Alice)
Meet the Author
Bil Wright is an award-winning novelist and playwright. His novels include Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy (Lambda Literary Award and American Library Association Stonewall Book Award), the highly acclaimed When the Black Girl Sings (Junior Library Guild selection), and the critically acclaimed Sunday You Learn How to Box. His plays include Bloodsummer Rituals, based on the life of poet Audre Lorde (Jerome Fellowship), and Leave Me a Message (San Diego Human Rights Festival premiere). He is the Librettist for This One Girl’s Story (GLAAD nominee) and the winner of a LAMI (La Mama Playwriting Award). An associate professor of English at CUNY, Bil Wright lives in New York City. Visit him at BilWright.com.
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SUNDAY, YOU LEARN TO BOX was a touching story and a good book centering around Louis Bowman, a teen-ager learn to cope and deal with his sexuality and his unsupportive parents trying to make him more masculine by teaching him how to box and defend himself. A coming-of-age story designed to follow Louis through the pains of what cruel teenagers are capable of, first crushes, curious sexual attractions, and supporting your own inner being, this book was a worthwhile trip.