Zak Mucha has done admirable work as a writer (the novel The Beggar’s Shore, the intro to Andrew Vachss and Frank Caruso’s Heart Transplant, the Reader‘s 2004 Pure Fiction issue) and admirable work at his day job as a counselor providing mental health services in Chicago. But he draws on a previous job—moving furniture—for the framework of his new novel, Heavyweight Champion of Nothing (published by local press Ten Angry Pitbulls). The story follows Johnny, an employee of Edgewater-based AA-Available Moving. Johnny’s approaching 30 and has worked there for five years; it’s a dead-end job of constant drudgery for guys for whom a dead end is as good an end as any. It provides enough to pay the rent, buy beer, and get high.
But Johnny considers himself, in effect, a good kid among bad kids. So when some of the crew start taking “side jobs” (i.e., thefts) he thinks the extra cash might be a way to get ahead with his life. Johnny weighs the possible consequences of his actions while dealing with a truly delusional girlfriend and a disapproving but supportive father. Johnny doesn’t believe in karma, per se, but he’s aware that this could lead to trouble. It does. When the gang is busted and he ends up in County, he blames no one but himself, though he does have to rely on the compassion of others to move on.
Mucha relays an anecdote about the heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson, who told a sports magazine how it felt to be on the wrong end of a knockout punch: “The darkness crept up from his knees to his forehead, his legs dissolved and he felt nothing but peace. . . . All would be fine now. Patterson said he always woke with a greater love of humanity after getting knocked out.” But to feel that peace, you have to be heavyweight champion of something. Johnny and those in his circle are heavyweight champions of nothing. Mucha doesn’t moralize; it’s just how life is for some people. Especially when you get knocked out.