“Does not every human story open midscene?”
The majority of narratives offered to us about athletes are constructed with an absolute disregard for complexity or nuance and are, rather, woven neatly together in ways that simplify and obscure reality. Information is instead dispersed, largely, in the form of amazing yet incoherent SportsCenter clips or articles harpooned by sentiment and theses that manage, in vague, uplifting language, to never take a stand on anything that anyone might argue against. Lifetime achievement awards are given without acknowledging the biggest achievement of all, how an athlete survives the rigamarolic life of someone who is treated by promoters or leagues as solely an economic asset yet needed, by the fans, to show unrealistic, otherworldly loyalty to a team or a place.
Likewise, the protagonists of memoir are rigged up through stylized scaffolding, where imprecise—but hopefully not deceptively so—memories are relayed with the necessary details readers desire, where settings are vivid and fresh, and dialogue is recalled to the word. Howley writes:
My (admittedly neurotic) progenitor … is so conscious of her own tendency toward self-confabulation that she hesitates to call anything she says of herself a fact. She has never known a real person who saw herself with even passable clarity. … All narrators, I say, are fiction. All. The reliable ones have the decency to admit it.
And, as memoir is most often entertaining for entering another’s mind more than the accuracy of the account, we watch athletes not for the inspiration mined from their stories but for the excitement of the punctuation marks that litter their tale. It is necessary, our limited view, for we gather and root for jerseys worn by flawed individuals. We cheer for moments of devastation and savagery that befits another, crueler time, and these moments do not fit with the broader themes of self-actualization or hardship overcome woven through most of these narratives. When we care for lifetime achievement awards, it is only on the most boring of midafternoons. What we really long for, from any athlete in any sporting event, is the transcendent instant—brought to us by no sponsor but our own sense of wonder—when reality stretches to fit in some never dreamed of feat.
Kerry Howley’s Thrown is an account of Kip, the Not-Kerry-Howley narrator, in search of these moments, where real life slips away to something more significant. During one of these elusive occasions, Kip thinks, “I have forgotten myself entirely; if any mortal part of mine is calling out for attention, I cannot hear it.” This liminality is embodied in mixed martial arts. Not only are the fighters’ careers time sensitive, but they are matched by the fluidity of the forms they practice. The more varied one’s expertise, the more ways one can attack and defend in the cage. Fighters shed the traditions of one style for the technique of another if it is advantageous to do so, and the best can employ a bit of everything.
In Thrown, jiu-jitsu is described as “the very opposite of fixity, an openness to the universe. … The aimless aim of rolling was to never be still because to stick in place was to stop the game and everyone knew that no moment was meant as an end to itself, that every new position—guard, mount, half-guard—was a phase on its way to a new one.” Form matches content in Howley’s descriptions. She rolls her way through the page with incredible deftness, while showing us that if Kip’s own way of interacting with the sport and those who partake in it might seem aimless, it is intentionally that way. She attaches herself to those who know not what they want, or know what they want but not how to get it, or know what they want but not what they will have to give up.
Thrown follows Kip—playing the role of “spacetaker,” a sort of “fighterly accoutrement”—alongside two very different fighters. One is an up-and-comer with real promise, cutting weight and training constantly, while the other is a journeyman who shows up to weigh-ins heavy and matches high. The real character is the setting, however disparate it may be—Vegas arena or a Midwestern hotel conference center—because Kip finds that “[t]here is really only one octagon, and that one flickers in and out of existence over space and time, such that the very same octagon is summoned to consciousness over and over again.” Sometimes, though, the octagon doesn’t show up. The fights go on but without the transcendence. In those fragile moments of disappointment, the fighters and the followers both are truly revealed.
Even being associated with this life seems to be enough to have to give something up. While Kip has been stapled down by schooling, she knows the fighters are “not cluttering one’s life with other people, petty distractions, emotional armor the encounter need penetrate.” In academia, one’s peak is not fleeting, and no injury can steal years or title shots. The only real death of the brain is through external, not internal, dullness. Those stuck in graduate seminars occupy buildings whose architecture has been “principally inspired by fear of rioting youths.” Such places are walled off from a fighter’s mentality, where safety and security must be waysided if there is any chance for success. A fighter must follow the spirit of the eternal riot. They are “instrument[s] alive to tuning” and a fight is what they need—something to challenge them—which is what the academy runs from.
Of course, following the spirit of the eternal riot is not always the best move, longevity-wise. Howley writes that mixed martial artists don’t peak until their early-thirties, even though they probably hit their physical peak some five years earlier. There is cruelty in the fact that by the time the mind has slowed the fights down to where a fighter can implement his or her hydra-knowledge of the martial arts, the body has begun what can be a harsh and rapid descent. But, in Thrown, linear progression only matters if it is building toward moments that are unencumbered by reality, when “thoughts could whip and whistle across my mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself.” Fighters seem to encompass total control and loss of all control simultaneously and it is this multiplicity of self, this fluidity of being, this frictionless universe they step in and out of, that allows Howley’s narrator Kit to abandon her “work of phenomenology” and write this book—much more entertaining, I’m sure, if less likely to help her get tenure—instead.
Thrown, by Kerry Howley. Louisville, Kentucky: Sarabande Books, October 2014. 288 pages. $15.95, paper.
Sam Price lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.