Kerry Howley has fighting words for those who consider mixed martial arts to be purely the purview of “toothless cretins,” “backwater voyeurs,” and “sadistic thrill-seekers.” In “Thrown,” a fresh, funny, and highly cerebral treatise on the philosophical merits of cage fighting, she challenges not only the stigma surrounding the sport but the conventions of literary nonfiction itself.
Howley’s debut is an intellectual take on the brutal form of combat — a blend of boxing, wrestling, karate, muay Thai, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, along with almost any mode of fighting apart from kicks to the spine and fishhooks to the mouth — that plays out in Las Vegas arenas and, via pay-per-view, in living rooms across the country, particularly in the Midwest, where Howley’s tale unfolds.
The prose is reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s writing about tennis — egg-headed, entertaining, and obsessive — but the voice is entirely original, the language innovative. In an anecdote illustrative of the tension between savagery and decorum in MMA, a blood-smeared fighter taps out of a losing fight. “His fingertips touched the canvas with extreme delicacy,” Howley writes, “as if to tap a bell and summon a concierge.”
It reads like fiction, in part because some of it is. Howley funnels her analysis through a narrator who is a fictionalized version of herself: a young graduate student named Kit, enrolled in a philosophy program at the University of Iowa (where Howley was enrolled, while writing this book, in the prestigious Writers’ Workshop). It is Kit, seeking satori, who sets out to study “the phenomenological basis of ecstasy” by embedding herself in the lives of two cage fighters at opposite ends of their careers: one a rising star named Erik Koch, the other a fading legend named Sean Huffman.
The fighters themselves, and all her observations, are real, Kit avers in a defense of her own invention. “[T]hose who ask that I be as real as Sean have a curious faith in the ability of people with birth certificates and tax IDs to free themselves from the fetters of deception,” she argues. “All narrators, I say, are fiction. All. The reliable ones have the decency to admit it.”
The literal-minded among us may flinch nonetheless at the notion of nonfiction with a fabricated narrator, as well as a story arc that depends in part on this character’s fictional battle with her buttoned-up professors while she dives ever-deeper into the world of ring girls and gut punches. Some may not consider it nonfiction at all. But it is a good story.
The tale blends three narrative lines as Koch sets out to establish himself as a fighter, aspiring to the featherweight championship title; Huffman tries to re-establish himself and prove that, at 33, he isn’t past his prime; and Kit aims to discover and document the transcendent moment when fighting transports the spectator to a pure, primal state beyond thought. The narrative bobs and weaves between the two fighters — who never meet each other — as Kit hedges her bets on which one is in a better position to deliver the enlightenment she seeks.
Kit, the highbrow foil for characters with far earthier life philosophies, both encourages and exploits her subjects. In one scene, Koch brags about his voracious appetite, describing his conquest of a burrito four times the size of an ordinary burrito.
While feigning awe over the oversized burrito, Kit instead contemplates Koch’s lithe gracefulness and delicate features. She wonders, “What would happen . . . if a rock-hard slobberknocker caught this feather-light hummingbird of a man? Perhaps nothing would happen; punch a feather and it goes on floating. Or perhaps he would collapse, bones cracked, the flicker gone.”
The contrast between Kit’s brainy analysis and the dim self-awareness of the fighters is striking and very often hilarious. It’s also the point. In cage fighters, she finds her opposite and her ideal. These are people who are truly open to experience, without hesitation or forethought. They are liberated from the mundane burden of day jobs, mortgages, family, and fear. They can transcend, in Kit’s words, the crudely duct-taped boxes that are our bodies, which, with their limited powers of perception, close us in from the world. Fiction or not, Kit can never match a true martial artist when it comes to the unfettered experience of reality.
Jennifer Latson is writing a narrative nonfiction book about Williams syndrome. Follow her on Twitter @JennieLatson.