Judging by the author picture in his last book, My Pet Serial Killer, Michael J. Seidlinger is a very handsome man you wouldn’t believe had ever boxed let alone been a physical altercation of any kind. However, according to the author bio of his latest, Seidlinger “has been in the ring long enough to experience the sting of a perfectly timed power punch.” Well.
The Laughter of Strangers drops you ringside to the mind of William “Sugar” Floures (52 wins, 4 loses), a troubled southpaw on a downward career slope:
Everything that doesn’t make sense I beat the shit out of me until it does.
Even if it doesn’t, the right punch will shake free the worry, the worry that’s all about how I’m nearing middle-age and I’m nowhere closer to coming to grips with who I am than when I was just starting out, burning cigarettes onto my skin just to feel something, getting into fights in front of bars in hopes of getting the chance to steal someone’s wallet.
Basically being the rebel, what I thought I should be.
Should have been.
Seemed to embody.
I was basically just lost, trying way too many paths while never actually committing to one.
Or, put more simply:
I am a fighter.
I am incapable of loving others including myself.
There is a claustrophobic, Dexter-like urgency in which Seidlinger uncoils Floures’s mind as though it’s an old battered and patched-up garden hose. There are delusions. The house in which he lives becomes a separate, breathing entity: “The house looks a lot like me.” There are bodies hanging in his gym, hungry and indignant. Voices in his head tell him he is no longer “sweet with the science.” And are these, in fact, multiple voices, or are they just different aspects of a singular voice? Basically, Floures’s mind is a spook house:
Disclaimer: My mind is ripe with mania.
Between what I do to remain relevant and what I do to remain myself, there is no middle, no sense to the nonsense.
Nonsense is pure publicity.
Nonsense is what ultimately keeps me as a cultural commodity.
A fighter must fight all aspects of himself if he wants to win the fight.
The actual fight scenes described in the book are riveting, like holy-shit-Raging Bull-riveting. In addition to the blood-and-guts sensationalism of boxing, Seidlinger brilliantly focuses on the chess-game aspect as well:
There is an idea brewing in this brain of mine.
I go back into my shell.
I think about when it might be the right time.
Not now, next round.
X unloads throughout round seven and at one point I start tasting copper, blood now oozing from my mouth.
Unpleasant but not unexpected.
Shell, condensed, losing on the cards.
The other characters include Spencer, a frustrated trainer whose daughter, Sarah, represents a glint of hope in Floures’s cracked psyche. When she catches Floures reenacting the “perfect” fight using two of her dolls, she opens a can of cerebral whoop-ass on him:
“You already understand,” Sarah laughs, “you just need to admit it to yourself that it’s time.”
“Time for what?”
She moves the doll’s arm, a mock-scolding gesture, “You can’t keep playing dumb. It’s a new era for you. You can be whatever you want to be. You change whatever you want to change. If you’re lucky, you won’t see yourself in the mirror. You’ll get to watch from the outside looking in. You get to settle down and appreciate all that you’ve done.
Easier said than done, sure, but Floures is no quitter. He knows damn well that the real fight is just beginning.
First thing I have to do is break some bad habits.
Mastering the muck of aging and identity, of ego and paranoia, Seidlinger takes his readers into dark psychological corners—then beats the crap out of them. No, The Laughter of Strangers is not something you’ll finish and walk away from lightly. You’ll stagger, for sure.
Brian Alan Ellis is the author of The Mustache He’s Always Wanted but Could Never Grow and 33 Fragments of Sick-Sad Living. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, and has defeated Mike Tyson in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out numerous times without using a cheat code. He’s that damn good.