Essaying: Tod Goldberg’s “When They Let Them Bleed”

(Tod Goldberg‘s “When They Let Them Bleed” is included in Best American Essays 2013; it originally appeared in issue 13 of Hobart)

I’ve written about Jon Kerstetter’s “Triage” and his adept use of the section break. I read Tod Goldberg’s “When They Let Them Bleed” the same week I read Kerstetter, and Goldberg takes the section break and turns it up to eleven. There are nineteen different sections in this essay, and I might be off by one or two. I would call this essay a collage or mosaic except I normally think of those sub-genres as filled with seemingly disconnected sections, and Goldberg’s is more cohesive than essays that tend to fall in those categories. He just uses the different sections to explore the same situation from as many perspectives as possible: the death of Duk Koo Kim.

Quite simply, Duk Koo Kim died from a punch he received in a boxing match with Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini at Caesars Palace on November 13, 1982 (Kim died a few days later in the hospital). Goldberg watched the match on TV; he was eleven. He describes how he was a cutter before we knew what cutters were. He would place the tip of his pocketknife into the girth of his stomach, wishing he could just cut the fat away. It has also been years since he’s seen his father, but his father has given him a subscription to Sports Illustrated, and Goldberg would meticulously remove the covers from the magazine and plaster them on his bedroom walls. He’s a kid in pain drawn to sports heroes.

Then he watches someone get pummeled to death on TV. Of course, that event sticks with him. Parts of this essay explore what he learns about Kim and how he was born and grew up in South Korea before he fought and died in Las Vegas. A lot of things changed after this event. They changed for Kim’s family. They changed for Mancini. They changed for boxing. They even changed for Sports Illustrated (Goldberg counts the number of times boxing was featured on the magazine’s cover before and after the Mancini-Kim bout). Of course, they changed for Goldberg, too. The power of this essay is in how he mines the ripple effects of this one event. I don’t think he left anything out, but his essay in no way feels long or drawn out. It just feels deep and smart.

A few passages I marked:

“I can’t think of Duk Koo Kim, who weighed 135 pounds and was five foot six and was fighting for the lightweight championship of the world, without thinking about how at the same time I was eleven years old and stood just four foot eight and weighed 135 pounds, about how I would squeeze the layers of fat on my stomach against the frame of my shower and imagine slamming the door hard enough to just cleave the skin off, how it would solve so many problems, how lucky it would be just to melt into the crowd of students at my school, to be an invisible boy” (206).

“What’s a knockout? Technically, it’s a stroke. A very small stroke, but a stroke no less” (207).

“For many years I have wondered why their deaths don’t haunt me as much as this stranger’s death, this boy who died by the calculated risk of becoming a boxer, and I can only conclude that it’s all about distance. I didn’t see either of my friends die—though in some respect I should have at least seen the signs, but I was a boy too, and they were boys, and you can’t expect boys to see things like pain and depression as clearly as retrospect would like us to believe—I just stood there in the aftermath and wondered why I was thinking of a dead boxer” (214).

“I stopped hurting myself after Duk Koo Kim died. I don’t know why. I still have the pocketknife, however. It’s in an old tackle box that’s out in my garage. It’s strange: I have a tendency to hold on to things that are relics of bad memories, as if by knowing where they are I’ll somehow be able to avoid the unlucky occurrence of running into them and being overwhelmed” (215).

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