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A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth
By Daniel Mason
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A Pulitzer Prize Finalist: This collection of moving short stories is “a treasure trove of lush scene setting in faraway times and places” (Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle).
On a fateful flight, a balloonist makes a discovery that changes her life forever. A telegraph operator finds an unexpected companion in the middle of the Amazon. A doctor is beset by seizures, in which he is possessed by a second, perhaps better, version of himself. And in Regency London, a bare-knuckle fighter prepares to face his most fearsome opponent, while a young mother seeks a miraculous cure for her ailing son.
At times funny and irreverent, always moving and deeply urgent, these stories—among them a National Magazine Award and a Pushcart Prize winner—cap a fifteen-year project. From the Nile's depths to the highest reaches of the atmosphere, from volcano-racked islands to an asylum on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, these are tales of ecstasy, epiphany, and what the New York Times Magazine called the "struggle for survival . . . hand to hand, word to word," by "one of the finest prose stylists in American fiction."
A Library Journal Best Book of 2020
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Death of the Pugilist, or The Famous Battle of Jacob Burke & Blindman McGraw
1. Who was Burke? His beginnings.
Born a winter child in the Bristol slums, in the quayside heap known only as “The Rat,” Jacob Burke, who would come to battle the great McGraw on that fateful day in 1824, was a son of the stevedore Isaac Burke and the seamstress Anne Murphy. He of Bristol, son of James, son of Tom, son of Zebedee, lifters all. She of Dublin and the cursed Gemini of Poverty and Fertility: Jacob was the twelfth of eighteen children, third of the surviving eight.
It was a common quayside childhood, of odd jobs and shoe shining; of quinsy, croup, and the irresistible temptation of diving from the piers. He grew up quickly. Thick-necked, thick-shouldered, steel-fisted, tight-lipped, heavy-on-the-brow, the boy knew neither a letter nor the taste sweet until his tenth year, when, in the course of a single moon, he learned to sound out the rune on the shingle at Mulloy’s Arms and stole an apple from a costermonger on the road to Bath. Two brothers, thinking they were bona fide Dick Turpins, had drifted into a life of brigandage, but by the grace of his mother’s daily prayers and father’s belt, Jacob turned from the taste of apples and back to the straight and narrow of his bloodline, joining Burke senior on the docks.
And on the docks he remained, lifting barrels of fish and slabs of iron cold from the sea air, until his back broadened and his forearms broke his cuffs.
2. The ascent of Burke, including: the Riots. Also: his early career and its vicissitudes.
At nineteen, Burke became known.
On the quay was a man named Sam Jones, a stevedore too, lifting with Burke from dark hour to dark hour. Sam Jones was an old man of forty when one morning his foot punched a rotted board on the dock and he went down beneath a load of flounder, 150 pounds of fish in an oak-slatted crate that snapped his neck against the railing before he slumped, slipped, limp into the sea.
Sam Jones had a month’s wages coming, but the Company didn’t pay his widow, and on the docks, the stevedores sat down and not a boat could move. Then the owners sent out their thugs, who fell on the men with clubs and pokers, and from the melee exploded the Quayside Riots, of fame.
It was a newspaperman from London who first saw Jacob Burke throw a punch. When the riots were over (and Jones’s wages still not paid), the newspaperman found him back at the ships, a ninety-pound bag of wheat thrown corpse-like over his shoulder, murmuring a sad low lifter’s song as he threaded the sacks and barrels on the pier.
The newspaperman talked a streak. Burke, not accustomed to long converses, let his eyes drift to a seagull hopping on the jetty rail, said Yes, sir like he was taught to speak to suits and elders, and occasionally repositioned the weight across his back. At long last the fellow drew out a calling card. Well? What do you think? Ever fought? he asked, and Burke asked back: There’s a man’s never fought?
On the card was the name of a warehouse on the harbor, where, over the following week, Jacob Burke sent three men to the floor. They were hard affairs, fighters showing up on the minute as if it were nothing but a shake-bag cockfight. No seconds, no ropes, purse paid out in dirty coins. No Fancy in the crowds, save a smattering of scouts. On the third night came a man Cairn who made an offer.
There are nine fights that first year. Hush matches, dueled in warehouses or country inns or levees east of the city. Purses thin, five and ten if lucky. Broughton’s rules. Bare knuckles. Twenty-four-foot ring. Round ends when a man goes down. Thirty seconds of rest and the fight doesn’t end until a man can’t drag himself back to the scratch. No gouging, no biting, no blows below the belt. No faking down to win a rest.
Cairn is his second. Also in his corner, holding his bottle, is an associate of Cairn’s, a Yankee who’d once been champion in New Orleans. Yankee must have a Christian name, though he changes the subject when someone asks. He has a crouch, a crablike way of moving, a way of rising to the toes, which Burke thinks are habits of the ring.
They are good to Jacob Burke, these men, treat him like a son. When that winter his father is laid out with cough, they advance him money against his purses. Give him breeches and spiked shoes, read him the fighters’ correspondence in the Weekly Dispatch, get him victuals when victuals are dear. Buy gifts for his young brothers. Take him to the pushing school, where they tell the girls he will be Champion of England. There, amidst the crepe and taffeta, he is humiliated by the attention, and when they make a show of putting up the socket fee, his face grows hot. Feels like he’s back in the ring, half thinks Cairn and Yankee will follow the girl and him, to watch.
Before each fight, Cairn takes him aside and tells him what scum the other is, makes it sound like Burke’s some avenging angel, meting out justice to a line of murderers and thieves and virgin defilers. But Burke doesn’t really care. He likes the chance to hit and watch his man fall. A ha’penny Bristol rag, with a full page on the fistic, covers his fights, but can’t seem to settle on a moniker, calling him the Quayside Brawler, then Stevedore Burke, Bruise Burke, then “Muscular,” which Cairn picks up for their promotions. It’s elegant, thinks Jacob. He buys a copy of the paper and brings it home, shows his mother which word on the page says “Muscular.” He writes it out for her in big letters on a piece of butcher paper, which she folds and tucks into the pocket where she keeps her comb. In celebration, he seizes two of his younger brothers around the waist and lifts them laughing onto his shoulders.
He begins oiling his hair back, which does little for his look except emphasize the weight of his brow. He listens to tales of the professional fighters. He wants to be like Gully so he twists his scarf into a cravat. Purses rise, fifteen and twenty. Buys a stovepipe of the first, and wears it at a rake like Cairn wears his. Like Cairn, who, word comes rumbling, was a walloper, too.
His days of cutting a swell are numbered. In his fourth fight, his match comes whipping and flapping at him like a fish on the docks. He takes a thumb to the eye and has to spend a week taped up with brown paper and vinegar. Spikes a fever, but Cairn hires a surgeon to bleed him and he’s cured.
In his fifth fight, Burke defeats Bristol’s Beloved. It wasn’t supposed to happen: the fight was an exhibition, a setup conceived to make the champion look good taking down a specimen like Muscular, but Muscular is triumphant.
4. How Burke came to fight Blindman.
This is how it came about that Burke fought Blindman:
In Lincolnshire, Broken Head Gall beat the Moor, and in Liverpool, Will Skeggs grassed Tom Johnson, who had no less than the great Peter Crawley in his corner, the butcher’s son known in his day as the “Young Rump Steak.” But Skeggs wouldn’t fight Broken Head, and at Moulsey Hurst, Tim Tate lost to “Le Petit.” So Broken fought Petit, but the fight was a cross, the Weekly Dispatch breaking the story that both men had met a fortnight before to fix. Then the Fancy went to Ted Shannon the Vainglorious, but Vainglorious knew Blindman and said that if he was going to get killed, he needed a bigger purse for his widow. This left the Fancy still hunting for an adversary, and this left Burke.
The match was scheduled for February, but no one would post a farthing on Burke. So they called again on Vainglorious but Vainglorious was gone, convicted of thieving and transported. Next, they found a hammerman in Melchior Brown, from Manchester, who’d been breaking gobs on the tavern circuit under the nickname Sparrow. But Brown went down in just four rounds, and the next pick, Frank Smith the Picturesque, refused to face Blindman’s murderous fists. So again they came looking for Burke. They decided Burke’s blood would get the Irish out, and Blindman would draw the Scots, and if there was a riot, then all the better. Besides, everyone knew the best fighters wore the Bristol yellow, and by then, Burke had moved out of the warehouse circuit, showing his mettle in a pair of battles at Egan’s Abbey.
5. But who is Blindman?
This is Blindman: Methuselah of thirty-five, icon of Scottish pride, hero of boys’ magazines, where he was drawn in monstrous proportions, sweeping Lilliputian armies down as if clearing a table for a game of cards. A dexterous hitter of steam-engine power. Won eighteen, lost two. Baptized Benjamin McGraw, he got his nickname in a fight in ’14, in the forty-third round, with eyelids so swollen by the punches that he couldn’t see. Refused to have them lanced, saying he could beat his boy blind and then leveled him, hard, as soon as they hit the scratch. After the fight, they asked how he’d done it and he answered, I hit where the breathing was. He had a patron in the Earl of Balcarres, who was said to slum with him in Glasgow’s most notorious. He liked to tell how he’d even been asked to be Yeoman of the Guard, but with all the stories of cursing and rough living and all the girls he’d pollinated, the offer was rescinded. In ’16 he’d knocked down the champion Simon Beale in two rounds, and Simon Beale never rose again. In the famous cartoon published in the Gazette, McGraw was drawn shaking his fists over a gravestone, on which was written:
Here in the shade lies Simon Beale
Jaw of iron, fists of steel
Won twenty-four fights with nerve and zeal
At twenty-five showed his Achilles’ heel
Took just two rounds for Fate to seal
That no soul’s spared by Fortune’s wheel.
Of course, there wasn’t a man among the Fancy who doubted Jacob Burke was going to get lathered. And Burke knew the rumors, but Cairn and Yankee said he stood a chance, that Blindman was growing old, and Burke was improving daily in strength and science.
Truth was, Burke didn’t need to be told. And Cairn knew too, for Cairn had been organizing fights for thirteen years, and knew there wasn’t anything so proud as a twenty-one-year-old, except maybe a sixteen-year-old, but try to find a neck like Muscular’s on a kid. Only problem with Burke, Cairn told him, finger pressed against his pectorals, Only problem with you was that Burke was too good and polite and he needed a little more meanness in him. Burke spent a good deal of time wondering about this, about how a hitter could be a good man, and whether he was good only because in the Great Scheme he was on the bottom and he couldn’t be anything else, that if conditions were different, he wouldn’t be so. Once in a pub he’d heard, There’s no such thing as a sin man, only a sin world, which he was told meant that the Devil was in everyone and it was a rare fellow who could keep him down. Then, later, he started thinking that maybe he’d heard it wrong, and it should have been, There’s no such thing as a good man, only a good world, and he started repeating it enough that he couldn’t remember if the basic situation was sin or good. Cairn said he was too good, but he knew inside that he hit because he liked the feeling of hitting the other fellow, which seemed at first like sin, but then he started thinking that if the other fellow was just like him, then the other fellow liked hitting too, and that meant he, Burke, was pounding a sinner, and so he, Burke, was good, except when he looked at it another way, then the other fellow was also clobbering a fellow who liked hitting (him, Burke), which meant the other fellow was good, and Burke was a sinner for milling an upright man.
The reasoning went round and round like one of those impossible songs that never stopped, until Muscular decided that what he liked about the fight was that he didn’t have to wonder about such questions, only hit, because if you didn’t hit, you got hit. That was the answer!
6. The day approaches.
So Burke takes to training, docks in the day, dumbbells at dusk. Cairn has him running his dogs in the hills. Hits the bags of sand. Bans drink and the amorous.
The word spreads fast around Bristol, and hush soon follows where Muscular walks. In the streets, he’s besieged by shoeshine boys, who beg to see standing flips and then let loose on each other with fists swinging. And the girls…Oh, how they lower their bonnets and lift their eyes when he rooster-swaggers past!
The posters go up, with sketches of the two men facing off as if they had posed together, shirtless, in ankle boots and breeches, tied close with sashes. They say the fight will be held at Moulsey Hurst, southwest of London, but all know this is a sham to throw off the magistrates. The papers take to calling the fight Blindman’s Brag, as if it were not a fight, but a showcase for McGraw. As if Burke weren’t even fighting.
One night, his mother is waiting for him when he comes home. They say you’re going to get killed, she says. Who says that? asks Jacob. They all say that, she says. I’ve been to the market. They say: Make sure they promise you the purse, Annie, ’cause your boy isn’t coming home.
Unspoken, but hidden in her words, is his father, who is coughing himself to bones, and hasn’t been down to the docks in months. But she doesn’t say Jacob should walk away. Had she, then he would have squared his jaw and proclaimed that he had his honor to protect. It is because she says nothing more that the doubts begin to eel their way in.
Except he knows he can’t get out even if he wants to. He owes Cairn, for the scarf, for the stovepipe, the food. Cairn says that with the purse from the fight with McGraw, he’ll be paid off and then some. Jacob decides then some means even more if he wagers on himself. Then he’ll stop.
7. They find a patron.
Two weeks before the fight, Cairn quarries a patron in a Corinthian named Cavendish; the rest of the fee is put up by the Pugilistic Club.
Cavendish meets Burke and Cairn at Ned Landon’s public house. He’s a dandy—curls, perfume, and cant jargonic. Wants to be called Cav, but Burke calls him Mister Cavendish, and he smiles. He made his blunt during the Regency, and flaunts it, burns a bill before their eyes. Recites a fight poem which he had published in Bell’s Life, full of lettery words Burke has trouble getting his ears around. Tells a story about a fighter, laughing, says, Poor Tom had his eyes knocked from his head. Just like that. Plop. Plop. Couldn’t find work and suicided. Drank prussic. Plop. Burke hates him immediately, feels his whole body tense up when he hears him jaw. He knows Cavendish is trying to look big by making him look small, but he can’t think of fast words to answer. Any other man, and he would hit him so hard he’d lose more than his eyes. He looks to his trainer, and Cairn tilts his head, just a little, as if to say, Easy, son. Swallow the toad. For fame, some things must be endured.
Ripe, Cavendish begins to slur. Calls a wagtail over and throws an arm around her waist. Tells Burke to remove his shirt. Says, Look at the symmetry, look at the strength. Says, Your mum’s Irish? Calls him My little boy. Touches his arms and says, My, this is pretty. Drinks his blue ruin until it runs down his chin. Says he was a boxer, but holds his fists with his thumbs inside.
8. They travel to the scene of the fight, spending the night in a coaching inn, where Burke meets a man who imparts his Philosophy.
The fight is set in Hertfordshire, in a field south of Saint Albans called Dead Rabbit Heath. In Saint Albans, they spend the night at a coaching inn. Cairn and Yankee drink until they’re reeling, but Muscular is too nervous to keep anything down. The publican is an aficionado of the fistic, and his walls are decorated with sketches and mezzotints of the great fighters, and Burke recognizes Broughton and Painter and the Jews Mendoza and Dutch Sam, and Gasman and Game Chicken. He wants to be like the portraits, still and quiet and distant on a watercolor patch all alone and glorious. But among the rabble that’s crowding the tavern, Muscular is cornered by a farrier, a fat, spectacled man who seems to have some reading behind him. Says he was a priest once, which explains his fine diction, though he won’t say why they stripped his cassock. You’ll be one of the greats, he tells Burke, finger to the sky like he’s back preaching on his hum-box. Just look at you. Maybe you’ll lose tomorrow but it doesn’t matter. Just hold your own, and soon you’ll be Champion. He asks if he knows of the battle between Achilles and Hector, but Burke has never heard of these two fighters. The farrier shrugs. You ever seen McGraw? he asks. Burke hasn’t, sketches only. Goliath, lisps the farrier. Like someone pressed two men into one. Misshapen like that too. You’ll see. Cauliflower ears. Ears? No! Cauliflower face.
He presses on. You want to hear my Philosophy? How are you going to win? Think, my boy. You want to win or you want to hurt him? Those are different things. Pastor Browne’s theory of the fight is that anger only takes a man so far. That’s what all you poor boys start with: anger, needing it like a horse needs a rider. But soon that gets in the way. You boys go out and think you are fighting a boxer but really you’re fighting the world. But a good fighter, you see, like Blindman, he knows that the man he’s fighting is fighting first to hurt and next to win. And he’ll use it. Use your hating to get you. That’s the difference. Men who fight to hurt will get it in their time. Gladiator in arena consilium capit. He’ll finish you. Mill you to a jelly. Get your head in chancery, and then where will you find yourself?
Burke doesn’t have an answer. He stares at the man, who’s got whiskers thick as string. The man’s going on about anger, and Burke is tempted to say, There’s no such thing as a sin man, only a sin world. I’m just hitting. He doesn’t want to talk anymore. But he won’t leave, won’t go to sleep either. A tavern chant swells. Then let us be merry / while drinking our sherry…
He has a sick feeling and thinks that maybe he is scared.
9. They gather at Dead Rabbit Heath.
The fight is to take place another two leagues from the inn, on a field not far from the highway, in a soft depression between the hills.
Soon after sunrise, they take a coach. They pass crowds heading down the road, on foot and horseback. A balloon rises in the distance. There are tents set up for peck and booze. The traffic is slow, thick with carriages. It takes Burke a long time to realize that the crowd is there, in part, for him. They stop at a small clearing halfway up the hill. Burke gets out, followed by Cairn and Yankee. Almost immediately he is set upon by the tag-rag, who jostle to get close. They sing, Gotta get the Blindman, or the Blindman gets you. Burke wears his stovepipe low over his eyes, his seconds flank him, leading him up a long path through the wet grass, over a rise and then down toward the ring. Both men hold him by his elbow. He wonders if it’s supposed to comfort him. He thinks, Where do they flank men like this? and the answer is the gallows.
As they approach, there’s a massive crowd already gathered at the ropes, and he can sense a hushing in the near. They’ve got two stands set up by the ring for the paying, but the crowds flow up the hills. Now desperate for reassurance, he looks for Blindman, as if the other fighter were the only one who could know what’s going on inside his mind. But Blindman is nowhere to be seen.
The ground is turned up like a pack of pigs came rooting through, but the ring is clean, neat, covered with sand, like nothing he’s ever fought in. They’ve strung two lines of painted rope, the scratch is already chalked. He keeps his greatcoat on as Cairn goes and speaks to the judge. He feels the eyes of the crowd on him, tries to ignore them, looks down and keeps clenching his hands. Finally, he lifts his face and looks out. The hill is all men, far as the eye can see. There’s a pair of swells near him, silk ties blooming, suits of bombazine, capes, pearl buttons. Hey, Muscle, one says and laughs. I’ve got money on you, Muscle, says the other. They’re talking funny, and then he realizes they’re mocking a brogue.
Cairn comes back. This’s big, boy, he says. Ten thousand men, and not a stable free for a sleepy nag. Half the country wants to see our boy fell the champ.
10. Cheers and jeers as his opponent approaches.
Late in the morning, McGraw arrives. Burke hears the murmurs thrumming through the crowd, then shouts going up, the hillside parting for a dark figure surrounded by an entourage. They are far off, descending the opposite slope. For an instant it is as if Burke is watching a shadow at sundown, the dark hulk lumbering over his seconds. A fight song materializes out of the noise, but he can’t hear the words. Then suddenly, with McGraw halfway to the ring, something ugly must have been said, for Goliath lunges into the crowd. Then tumult, the black suits turning over as if they were dominoes. Burke can’t tell if McGraw is swinging—it’s all men coming up and falling back and shouting and flailing like a giant seal thrashing in the surf. Then his seconds must have gotten hold of him, for he’s pulled back, and the crowd ripples and is still. Murmurs now: A beast, they shouldn’t let him fight, but Burke knows he did it for show, though he doesn’t know if the show is for him or for the crowd that’s come.
There are no more incidents. As McGraw gets closer, a quiet descends. At the edge of the ring, McGraw hands his greatcoat and hat to his second and steps inside. From his corner, Burke watches Blindman strip.
- “A collection of stories with themes of class division, the artist’s role in society and our need for love and belonging, reflecting a prowess with language and a mastery of the short form.”—2021 Pulitzer Prize Committee
- "Unique and beguiling... Mason's first short story collection is a treasure trove of lush scene setting in faraway times and places, from the wilds of England to the Malay Archipelago... A perfect and fitting pick for these seemingly endless days when science, our understanding of reality and a faint longing for human connection are so irrevocably intertwined."—Alexis Burling, San Francisco Chronicle
- "What I've found most remarkable about Mason's fiction is the quality of his revelations, his ability to unveil temperaments, habits, natures. His stories are mysteries, albeit not in the genre sense... In all of the stories, you can see Mason figuring out new strategies to get closer to the people he is writing about. Each is a portrait, each a deep dive into an individual's nature, each rooted in history."—Wyatt Mason, New York Times Magazine
- “A Registry of My Passage upon the Earth is itself something of an aesthetic miracle of found material, an extraordinarily rich and varied collection in which Mason's erudition shimmers with insight and deep feeling.”—Northern California Book Award Committee
- “Mason is particularly strong at depicting the state of mind a character works himself into when struggling with fear, uncertainty or even impostor syndrome… the subjects and settings provide a pleasing unity. The grand pleasures of fiction are all here: rich, cushioning detail; vivid characters delivering decisive action; and a sense of escape into a larger world.”—John Self, The Guardian
- "Mason conveys more in a short story than many authors manage in an entire novel."—Christian Science Monitor
- “The characters in these robust short stories, set mostly in the nineteenth century, struggle as captains of their destinies.”—The New Yorker
- "A wonderful set of period tales that offer a welcome transportive escape... conjuring a vivid world of scientific endeavor and human isolation in myriad settings."—Mariella Frostrup, BBC
- "Daniel Mason is a masterful storyteller, and these stories---the attention to history and science and all that is unknown---are nothing short of brilliant. With exquisite, mesmerizing language, he transports us to places far beyond the realm of our realities and then lands us in ways wholly intimate and moving. A Registry Of My Passage Upon the Earth is a marvel and a journey not to be missed."—Jill McCorkle, New York Times bestselling author of Life After Life
- "An enchanting cabinet of curiosities and wonders... Mason is one of our best historical novelists, creating panoramas of rich detail, propulsive plot, and artful character development... In his first story collection, he shows how quickly and completely he can immerse readers in a foreign place and time... Nine tales of human endurance, accomplishment, and epiphany told with style and brio."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
- On Sale
- May 5, 2020
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Little, Brown and Company