Written before the phenomenally successful The Book Thief but, in the UK at least, published after it, Fighting Ruben Wolfe is the story of two brothers, Ruben and Cameron. They're not so much the underclass of society as hairs on the festering pot belly of it. If that's too grotesque a metaphor for you, then you won't want to read this book, trust me. Aptly enough, this isn't a story that pulls its punches when going in to ugly detail. Their family adrift and helpless since their proud father was made unemployed and refused to claim benefits, Rube and Cam turn to the lucrative but decidedly unglamorous illegal boxing scene. But, it soon transpires, not for the money...
If this sounds like red-blooded male fiction then you could be halfway right. Zusak doesn't go so far as to describe every switch hitting stance, southpaw shuffle, or face busting overhand haymakers when detailing the fights themselves. But he doesn't skim over them either: 'Blood has flooded my chest and stomach,' says narrator Cameron, 'It eats in to my shorts. Dog's blood.' Zusak's spare prose is lent an odd poetry by some of his bruising metaphors. It brings to mind Tom Waits, singing about kicking at the clouds as he's hanged for loving a woman called Lucinda. Not so much flowery prose as words stitched with shark teeth and left to wither in a jar of poison.
But I know what you're all thinking. Is it as good as The Book Thief? Well, no. But really, was it ever going to be? This is a work on the road toward that astonishing novel, a work in which Zusak is still finding his voice and making mistakes. The one word paragraphs...
Are a bit too frequent. The handwritten segments which end each chapter are a bit, well, pointless really. A meaningless attempt at being unconventional: they're a long way from being like Death's whimsical asides, put it that way. As for the story? Well, it is in effect, a rites of passage tale about two boys from the wrong side of the tracks fighting for a better life. So perhaps more like Bruce Springsteen, then, just written in the rundown singles bar at 3am style of Tom Waits.
But hey, that's no bad thing at all. Glimpses of Zusak's greatness are definitely on show here. Cameron is a likeable enough character, and Ruben is a riddle wrapped up in an enigma surrounded by a lunatic, to steal a phrase once used to describe the wayward genius tennis player Marat Safin. A peculiar, salt-of-the-earth nobility is lent to the seemingly mundane activities that Rube and Cam get up to, such as playing football with pumpkins, trying to palm off broken household goods on to their neighbours, or boxing one handed in their back garden. The boxing scenes, though, are the main thing, and it's the last one of the book where the real poignancy comes in. Better things were to come, yes, but this is a bruising, moving and heartfelt read.