Jaed Coffin spent plenty of time in his early 20s thinking about questions of family, masculinity and how his own upbringing set him on the path to adulthood. Such soul-searching is something that he has in common with many an introspective person of a certain age: a restless search for a deeper understanding of himself and the world. Most people, however, don’t pursue that search in the midst of an underground boxing organization in remote Alaskan towns – but that’s precisely what Coffin did.

Cover courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“Roughhouse Friday” tells the story of Coffin’s time in Sitka, Alaska. It’s his second memoir, following 2008’s “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants.” In the earlier book, he described a visit to Thailand when he was 21, in search of a connection with his mother’s side of the family. Coffin is the son of a Thai mother and a white American father who met when his father was in the Army. He grew up in Maine, and now teaches at the University of New Hampshire and the Portland-based Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing program.

“Roughhouse Friday” finds Coffin having finished college and embarking on a series of travels, including a kayak trip up the Pacific coast, which eventually led him to Sitka, Alaska.

“By the time I’d arrived in Sitka, I’d grown tired of being a nameless, vanishing person, tired of eating rockfish, of sleeping in the sand, of being wet,” he writes.

He gets a job teaching and doing administrative work at the local high school. One day, while working out, he hears a strange noise coming from another room; he discovers a group of local boxers in the midst of training. On a whim, he asks to join them and, after demonstrating his fortitude in the ring – or, at least, his ability to take numerous punches – he’s in. Not long after, Coffin learns of an open spot on a bill and ventures into the ring for his first competitive bout.

Part of “Roughhouse Friday” involves Coffin’s description of the local variation of boxing: the rounds are shorter, the participants range from trained competitors to last-minute additions to the fight card, and the whole thing takes place inside of a bar. Juxtaposed with Coffin’s own memories of his time there are brief histories of some of his fellow fighters, as well as the history of how roughhouse boxing evolved in southeastern Alaska.

Coffin’s descriptions of these fights offer a frenetic account of what it’s like to be inside the ring, attempting to figure your opponent’s style and weaknesses out before things rapidly go wrong. One account of a fight is punctuated by the bout’s promoter periodically shouting variations on the phrase, “Schoolteacher versus a student!” It’s a precise way of rendering chaos onto the page: Coffin demonstrates how even a fight as hectic as this has its ebbs and flows, and how his own confidence shifts over the course of the bout.

“By the time I returned to my stool after the second round, I was losing the fight on every card, but I no longer felt that the outcome of the fight was inevitable,” he writes at one point. Not-quite-victorious moments like that nonetheless make for the emotional high points of these vignettes.

While Coffin is documenting a particular scene here – as well as writing compassionately about the native students he worked with – he isn’t simply writing a travelogue of his experiences in small-town Alaska. In the book’s prologue, Coffin writes about his father, who constantly read him stories of King Arthur, and one day presented him with matching shirts emblazoned with the names of Lancelot and Galahad. Coffin’s father left his mother when he was still a child, and this conflict between traditional notions of masculinity and the realities he experienced firsthand sets the tone for the narrative that follows.

Throughout “Roughhouse Friday,” Coffin describes people living unexpected lives. For some, it’s the decision to box – to make a foray into a violent world that nonetheless offers the promise of camaraderie. For others, it’s the prospect of a life adrift, traveling from place to place with little stability. Such is the condition inhabited by some of the boxers Coffin encounters, but it could also apply to his father, whose government work leads him into some harrowing places.

“Roughhouse Friday” abounds with contradictions: It’s a memoir about empathy that includes extensive descriptions of fighters beating one another up. But those unlikely juxtapositions make for a rewarding read. Coffin’s conclusions about masculinity and archetypes don’t come to him easily, and their repercussions on his personal relationships have seismic effects. Elements of this story – a young man ventures to a small town far from all he’s known to discover who he really is – can feel familiar at times. But Coffin finds the specificity in his own experiences, both through his familial dynamic and through the people he encounters in Alaska, to make this memoir an intense and haunting read.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of the novel “Reel” and the short story collection “Transitory” and has reviewed books for Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.


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