Death’s got an unblemished fight record.
That’s the undercurrent of Derek Palacio’s tightly-wound novella HOW TO SHAKE THE OTHER MAN (Nouvella, 2013). The book traces the stories of Javi and Oscar, two men with two very different loves for Marcel, a gregarious Cuban entrepreneur who is murdered outside one of his coffee stands. To Oscar, Marcel was an older brother. To Javi, Marcel was a lover. At Marcel’s request, Oscar teaches Javi how to box. The entire book is set in the wake of Marcel’s death, and in the days leading up to Javi’s first fight.
And so the two men do battle, in their own ways, with Marcel’s absence. He’s the titular ‘other man’ each character tries, and fails, to shake. Most of the book looks backward: Marcel’s exile from his Catholic family in Miami and Javi’s time as a male prostitute are both laid bare in vivid prose. Palacio shines when capturing the small details that make the heartbreak real: the spilled post-coital coffee or the shirt button fingered absently while speaking with the police.
There’s always been a symbiotic relationship between writing and boxing, perhaps because the latter lays bare some of the crucial stuff that makes the former so compelling. The sport is man vs. man, the most basic grist for the fiction mill. Upon a simple foundation, though, you can build some pretty expansive stuff (cf. the essays of A.J. Leibling). That’s what Palacio does here. He’s an expert technician—a counter-puncher, to extend the metaphor—and this book is a vivid glimpse, a single round of a longer, more devastating fight.