The Years of the Locust is a punchy true account of murder and corruption in heavyweight boxing’s sordid under- and indeed over-belly. It is by writer, multi-talented blogger and fellow Steve Bruce fan Jon Hotten. I heartily recommend that you purchase it forthwith – it has many fine qualities (there’s an extraordinary chapter called Noir Boxers which rips through a great tapestry of corruption and might well put you off boxing for life) and it has stayed with me even though I read it before Christmas, ie. in another lifetime. But for me it was especially striking for its perfectly inconclusive conclusion.
Journeyman boxer Tim Anderson shoots the odious promoter Rick Parker to death, confesses immediately, is found guilty by a jury and is sentenced to life without parole. By the end of the story it is possible to say, confidently and justifiably, that Tim did commit premeditated murder, and also that he didn’t; and that he deserved to be given life without parole and also that he didn’t. We are sympathetic to the killer but, bravely and rightly, Hotten refuses to turn the book into a “Free Tim Anderson” soapbox lecture. The key passage comes after Anderson is found guilty by a jury which subsequently objected to the harshness of his sentence. The trial of Tim Anderson had been a simple one. It came down to this: two men walked into a room. One man walked out. All of it was true. None of it was true.
Endings and narratives are constructions. It’s not that all narratives are equally valid (or invalid) and therefore useless. It’s not even that history is just one damn thing after another. The problem lies with the causal chains upon which narratives depend. Virtually everything that happens has multiple causes, the various degrees of importance of which are impossible for humans to determine with any objective certainty, particularly when considering decisions and states of mind. How do you explain the moment before an action? (Anderson shot Parker on the spur of the moment, and he also shot Parker because he had built up years of justifiable resentment. Somebody had to shoot Parker and Anderson just happened to be the man unfortunate enough to be in the position to do it. He didn't have to do it, but then again he had no choice. Part of Anderson planned to shoot Parker, but Anderson was the kind of person who could never plan to murder someone. But the law can't allow people to be murdered just because they seem to really deserve it, so the guilty verdict was the right one.)
Because of the multiple causes, the causal chain is incomprehensibly complex - a web, in fact, not a chain. Futhermore, the beginnings and ends of the chains are arbitrarily selected by the narrator and, as with climate change graphs, contracting or expanding the scope radically alters the appearance of the trend. Further furthermore, a range of quite different descriptions of the same thing can all be objectively true at the same time (for example, a piece of music could be described as a series of transcribed notes, or wave frequencies, or cultural influences, or aesthetic qualities) and people often slip between different kinds of description of things in their causal chain. But then again, narratives are useful, important and morally necessary, except when they are counterproductive, trivial and morally abhorrent.