George Kimball was blessed with the kind of voluble charm you find in an Irish bar, and, brother, let me tell you he’d been in a few. No amount of drink, however, could rein in his galloping intelligence. It was as pure a part of him as his love of the language and good company, and when he spoke, I did what I’ve always done best in the presence of gold-star raconteurs: I listened. Even when we were on the radio hustling our book of great boxing writing, I did little more than provide grace notes. At least that’s the way it worked in the beginning. And then George’s voice began to turn into a sandpapery whisper. It was the chemo, extracting its price for helping to keep him alive.
Now I was the talker, just me by myself, trying to score points with the strangers on the air at the other end of the line. Again and again, I gravitated to the idea that there is something noble about prizefighters in their willingness to accept the fact that every time they set foot in the ring, they may be carried out on their shield. But it was always George I thought of, the truest nobleman of my lifetime.
The cancer doctors gave him six months to live six years ago, and it was as if he said, with characteristic Anglo-Saxon aplomb, “Fuck you, I’m too busy to die.” He went on to write books, essays, poetry, songs, and even a play. He edited books, too, and worked on a documentary. Somehow he also found time to get out to the theater and concerts and dinners. When we were collaborating long-distance—George in New York, me in L.A.—he surprised me more than once with the news that he had just landed in France or Ireland. He wasn’t simply collecting stickers for his suitcase, either. He was savoring the world that was slipping away from him and looking up writers he had always wanted to meet, like J.P. Donleavy and Bill Barich. And he made a point of staying in touch with them, for once he wrapped his arms around someone, he never let go.
It will be that way even now that he has breathed his last, too soon, at 67. Those of us who knew him—probably even those who have only heard about him—will keep the Kimball legend alive with stories about his wild times and all the nights he dropped his glass eye in a drink someone asked him to keep an eye on. There was a look that George used to get when he was on the loose back then, a look that is probably best understood when I tell you I first saw it in the Lion’s Head as he was trying to set a friend’s sport coat on fire. His friend was wearing it.
His unfiltered Lucky Strikes were the only remnant of his old life. “What are they going to do,” he said, “give me cancer?”
I went a long time without seeing George, and when we reconnected, he had changed without sacrificing either his relentless view of the world or his ability to laugh at the hash that mankind has made of things. He was like the record producer in Jennifer Egan’s sublime novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, who tells a bewildered young man how he survived the self-destructiveness of the rock and roll business: “You grew up, Alex, just like the rest of us.” So it was that George put booze and drugs behind him and let his work take center stage. His unfiltered Lucky Strikes were the only remnant of his old life. “What are they going to do,” he said, “give me cancer?”
The transformation remained a mystery to me until Bill Nack, as treasured a friend as he is a writer, sent word a few years ago that George had esophageal cancer. I wrote George a note of support and got in return the most startling letter I expect I ever will from a sick man. There were no euphemisms, just pure, raw, unadorned honesty. George was going toe-to-toe with death, and he knew that death would win, but he was damned if he wasn’t going to take the fight the full 12 rounds. Never if my life have I seen a greater example of a fighter’s heart, and that includes Ali and Frazier.
George was fighting for the money he would leave his wife and children, and for a body of work that said he counted for something in the world of sportswriting. He wrote incisively, relentlessly, memorably, and he threw himself into the editing of our Library of America anthology, At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, with the same fervor. Here was a book that would give him the spotlight he yearned for. On that March day in 2010 when the bosses at LOA told us it had passed muster, George was so happy it didn’t matter that he was too sick to swallow his soup. He was a champion.
He wasn’t finished, though. Space limitations—yes, even a 517-page book has them—had confined us to non-fiction, so he tracked down a small press and Lou DiBella, a boxing promoter with a literary bent. Voila! The Fighter Still Remains: A Celebration of Boxing in Poetry and Song Lyrics from Ali to Zevon was born.
And still George wasn’t done. We had an abundance of fiction we hadn’t been able to squeeze into At the Fights, either, unforgettable work by Hemingway, Nelson Algren and Leonard Gardner, to name but a few, and George wasn’t about to let them lie fallow. Back to work we went, each of us digging up new entries along the way, George zeroing in on Walter Mosley, me on Harry Crews. We didn’t have a publisher, of course, not even a nibble, but we had a title, Sweet Scientists: A Treasury of American Boxing Fiction, and that was enough to sustain us for the time being.
I mailed everything I found to George, who promised that he would overcome his Oscar Madison tendencies and send me the manuscript in good shape. I shouldn’t have doubted him, but I did. I read the e-mail he sent to the woman who watches over his web site, the one in which he gave specific instructions about what to do after he was gone, and I knew the final grains of sand were going through the hour glass. But on Wednesday, shortly before noon, Federal Express delivered a box to my door, and inside was the manuscript George had promised, looking neat, even pristine. A few hours later, on the other side of the country, he was dead.
[Picture via the George Kimball archives]