Kerry Howley’s Thrown is an ecstatic gutshot of literary journalism that has shaken me in more ways than one. At its core, Howley’s debut is a candid profile of two separate mixed martial artists in the Midwest. Though she never explicitly uses the author’s name, Kit is presumably Thrown’s author Kerry Howley, an MFA writer and journalist with bylines in many major publications. Her story begins while at a dreary phenomenology conference, where she sneaks away to explore a Mixed Martial Arts tournament being held in the same hotel. It’s a spectacle that floors and energizes the writer—“I had, for the first time in my life, found a way out of this, my own skin”—and propels her to spend the next few years documenting the MMA scene in this masterwork of social investigation.
Thrown focuses on two fighters. Sean is a journeyman, famous for never having been knocked out. He’s getting close to the age at which most fighters either peak or leave the game entirely. He fills his time between tournaments as a bouncer, or a ditch-digger, whatever’s paying. He is hamstringed by a former girlfriend who claims to have had his baby. He trains but doesn’t seem as committed to doing the work that will get him to the “Big Shows,” the title bouts that promise bigger draws and possible television coverage.
Erik is an up-and-coming contender with “lissome porcelain limbs, bloodless grace, a body that does not move as you expect bodies to move.” He is poised to breakout if he can stay healthy physically and mentally, since beyond the brutal sparring bouts and sweat-drenched practice sessions, the hardest part of a fighter’s existence is dealing with the oppressive loneliness and pressure of training. That’s where space-takers come in. They’re the ones who are responsible for keeping their fighters on the straight and narrow.
At the Big Shows, you see these space-takers in the ring surrounding the champion after they’ve won, mugging for the camera, pointing at the sponsored swag they’re wearing. Kit, through means she does not discuss, becomes one of these loyal hangers-on for both fighters. She frames this as an essential part of her writing program, a “project of importance not only to me but to future students of descriptive phenomenology.” She is also desperately searching for the ecstasy she found in that first fight. Lucky for us, her tendency to wax philosophic with throat-clearing digressions—a device possibly played past the point of parody—is second to her drive to capture every detail with vivid clarity. “I believe that nothing can extend the fight’s temporal existence, however feebly, but a faithfully observed written record.”
As a narrator, Kit is honest with her emotions in a way rarely, if ever, found in objective sports writing. Her drive to document Erik’s reckless bridge burning with his supporters—and her naked disgust with Sean’s sentimental tendencies—are played for every jaw-dropping gasp. The not-at-all objective nature of her worship suffuses much of the language with underlying tension. As when, towards the close of the book, she reunites with Erik, who has been ducking her for months without explanation. She crosses state lines to see him fight and wends her way through the fickle crowd to tearily embrace him seconds before he enters the octagon. “My moment of embarrassment was already transformed into a glow of pride. The entire room had seen that I was his, and he mine.”
The author pushes against the reader’s expectations so strongly that it feels like she is practically daring you to dismiss her. There are passages so egregiously wanky with grad school declarations of truth and beauty that you wonder if Howley is taking liberties. Yet on the same page, she’ll admit to feelings of attachment so unprofessional for a profiler that you cannot help but guh at the vulnerable confessions. Her sensitivity about turning thirty, her petty quibbles with professors who are clearly in the right: all of this honesty gave me shivers. I was in awe. I still am. The author had found a midway point between the forthright vulgarity of a Fred Exley-style memoir and Bill Buford’s gonzo journalism writing. There was a slight caveat.
A quarter of the way into the novel, Howley drops this wordy bombshell:
In regards to the present narration, I feel compelled to defend myself against a certain sort of prejudice endemic to our times. “You,” my gentle detractors will say, “who purport to tell the stories of these real men, are but a work fiction.”
. . . Be assured, in the world I describe, space was taken. The fighters were heard by human ears, each word faithfully recorded. Real fingers ran over the stitches in Sean’s brow. Real tears fell down the face that watched him fall.
I admit that I didn’t pay that admission too much mind when I read it, though I did bookmark it. But after finishing the book and researching its subjects online, I read on numerous websites including the author’s own that the narrator is “semi-fictionalized.”
I realize that the line between fiction and nonfiction is a cloudy one, made more opaque by each year’s Greg Mortenson or JT LeRoy. Those books may never have sold as well if they had originally been packaged as works of fiction, but the shift in distinction when aspects of their stories were revealed to have been invented whole cloth sent the works to the remaindered land of Ignored Books, a moribund state worse than a hundred bad reviews.
This metafictionalization might be the author engaging the stagnant status quo, doing her part to chip away at category conventions. On the other hand, it could be there was less of a story without this rambling, emotional, lovable, semi-fictionalized narrator uniting these two profiles. It is a thorny issue and a gutsy choice, perhaps one that might change your perception of the book, though I imagine the author and publisher are hoping it changes your perception of the category instead.
Publisher: Sarabande Books
Pub date: October 14, 2014
Reviewed by Andrew Wetzel