Boxer Liston appears occasionally in new bio — but Vegas looms large
It’s important to note what comes after The Murder of Sonny Liston in the title of Shaun Assael’s latest book: Las Vegas, Heroin, and Heavyweights (Penguin Random House, $27). The ESPN investigative reporter, trying to set the possible murder of the ex-champ in cultural and historical context, seems to write more about Vegas Valley politics, drug-dealing police, and Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier than about Liston. I did not actually count the number of its 320 pages with nothing about Liston, but I plowed through long sections on these subtopics wondering how, exactly, Assael would tie them to the discovery of Liston’s bloated body in his Ottawa Drive home on January 5, 1971.
Speaking of which, in the Introduction, and again toward the end of the book, Assael treats the reader to a description of the five-day-old corpse that might be described charitably as “detailed.” This sets the tone for Assael’s matter-of-fact approach, which, after all, is peopled with blunt characters from the fight world and the vice squad. Still, I’d like to propose a moratorium on writing about Las Vegas in noir-ish prose. I read an uncorrected galley and shouldn’t quote from it, so I can only hope that a few eye-roll-inducing sentences have been fixed.
Liston’s tale threads through the book’s socio-cultural exposition, cobbled together to a great extent from earlier biographies. He also delves into the archives of the Las Vegas Sun, at one point reprinting publisher Hank Greenspun’s page-one story about the “disappearance” of Howard Hughes. What has that to do with Sonny Liston? Something about the shifting sands of wealth and power in end-of-Sixties Las Vegas, presumably. Assael imagines Sonny, recuperating from a car wreck, reading Greenspun’s story before or after one about his crash. It’s among several reconstructed moments in a book bristling with conditionals. To his credit, Assael admits that questions about Liston’s death might never be resolved, but that does not keep him from mulling possible murderers and conspirators. He shoe-leathers through the possibilities, tracking down retired detectives and shady operatives, each with something to add, little of it conclusive.
Still, these are the best parts of the book, when Assael describes encounters with Las Vegas old-timers and their memories of Liston, who comes across variously as clever, rakish, self-pitying and mean. Born to a sharecropping family in Arkansas, Liston fought his way to fame, and was wise enough to know where he stood as an “angry black man” in a racist town. But he was so dissolute, drinking, dealing and shooting up, that it almost does not matter whether he was murdered. He was already careening down a dead end.