In Black Ajax, George MacDonald Fraser tells the story of a black man from the United States who nearly became England's champion boxer during the early 19th century. This historical novel is based on the true story of Tom Molineaux, a former slave who won his freedom in a boxing match, then travelled to England, refined his skills, and almost became the first black champ. The story is told by over a dozen witnesses to Molineaux's bouts with the reigning champion, Tom Cribb. Molineaux's trainer recalls the fighter's awe-inspiring strength and speed. A butler who asks to remain anonymous divulges information about the fighter's love affair with an English noblewoman. Molineaux's manager, a former slave and retired boxer, speaks bitterly of his disappointment in the youth for failing to prove to the English that a black man could be as capable a fighter as any white man. Nearly all the witnesses to the first match between the two fighters thought Molineaux lost mainly because the judges gave the white opponent an unfair advantage.
All the characters in this novel speak in 19th-century dialect, and it's diverting to try to decipher their many odd turns of phrase. For those who cannot determine the meanings of words such as "Spike Hotel", "toco", "winker", and "wistycastor" from context, the author provides a glossary at the end of the book. Unfortunately, almost all of the characters seem overly fond of using racial epithets, which draws attention to the shortcomings of this book. The main one is that Tom Molineaux, who undoubtedly was a complex, fascinating character, comes across as a stereotype here: a hulk with not many brains but a lot of sex drive. Although Fraser fails in that respect, this novel does vividly chronicle an intriguing episode in the history of sport and race relations. --Jill Marquis [via]