Champion of the World- Chad Dundas

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Champion of the World
480 pages; G.P. Putnam's Sons
It's difficult to believe Chad Dundas's Champion of the World is a debut novel—so fluid is its plot movement, so sure the narrative. Set in the 1920s, the slyly ambitious book centers primarily on former lightweight wrestling champion Pepper Van Dean and his long-suffering, smart-enough-for-the-both-of-them wife, Moira. When we meet them, they're living hand-to-mouth as members of a traveling carnival. Then one day an ex-associate of Pepper's shows up with a proposition: Come to Montana and train Garfield Taft, a brash, gifted black ex-con who's seeking a shot at the heavyweight title and happens to be carrying a terrible secret. What unfolds is one of the most wonderfully controlled displays of storytelling by a new author in recent memory.

Besides the page-turning momentum and thrilling set pieces, Dundas's novel has an almost sweet melancholy. So many of the characters are searching for redemption. Take the heavyweight contender's wife, Carol Jean Taft, who cuts a figure of barely contained desperation as she hopes against hope that her loyalty will be rewarded. Even the history of professional wrestling—under the influence of gangster promoters, and with attendance flagging—is presented with a curious sadness as the sport transitions from an authentically competitive contest to the theatrical farce we know today, mostly against the will of the wrestlers themselves.

When the betrayals, failures, and mishaps come, they're surprising and at times brutal, as merciless in their own way as that greatest of culprits here, the slow slipping away of time.

— Dotun Akintoye