A Year in Reading: Jacob Lambert

December 19, 2015 | 3 books mentioned 3 min read

As a child of the 1980s, few figures held greater sway in my imagination than champion heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson. Along with similarly indomitable characters of the era — Hulk Hogan, Jose Canseco, Arnold Schwarzenegger — Tyson radiated a destructive intensity that was uniquely American, pleasingly cartoonish, and very of its time. He was unmatched military might and expansionist policy. He was a bomb-dropping F-14, flown by a young Tom Cruise.

My fascination with Tyson didn’t come from watching his fights; in fact, at the time, I never actually saw one. The closest I came was at a Morningside Heights house party that my older brother took me to when I was nine years old. The Tyson-Spinks bout was on in the living room, and as I climbed the brownstone’s front steps, partygoers were already pouring out, in laughing disbelief at what they had just seen: Tyson had knocked poor Michael Spinks practically unconscious in a mere 91 seconds. When I finally made my way in to gape at the TV, the knockout was being replayed in soft-focus slo-mo, the real act of violence already a memory.

In that way, Tyson was always lurking at the edges of the culture — caricatured as a malevolent, grinning beast who I could never quite comprehend. I’d spend hours at my Nintendo, steadily ascending through Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, only to reach Tyson and, like Spinks, be flattened and debased. I’d see him in Pepsi commercials with his then-wife Robin Givens; they put forth a picture of domesticity that, given his powers and his very look — a Frankenstein’s monster head atop a thick slab of deadly muscle and black gladiator boots — was deeply confusing to me.

Everyone knows what came next for “Iron Mike:” the tabloid divorce, the rape conviction, the Buster Douglas loss, the Evander Holyfield ear-snack, the face tattoo, the fading career, the squandered fortune, the Hangover cameo. In the national mind, Tyson currently holds a space somewhere between Jim Brown and Gary Hart, a near-even mixture of greatness and disgrace.

coverThere is nothing more interesting to me than near-even mixtures of greatness and disgrace, especially when it comes to someone who figured so prominently in my youth. So when I saw a paperback copy of Tyson’s 2013 autobiography, Undisputed Truth, on a bookstore shelf earlier this year, I felt compelled to pick it up. Finally, I would be able to, if not understand Mike Tyson — villain, felon, lunatic, hero — at least be able to hear him discuss what it’s like to be those things.

Undisputed Truth is, like the man himself, troubling, maddening, and unselfconsciously entertaining. It is not written so much as dictated to his ghostwriter, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, and it sprawls, often repetitively, for nearly 600 pages. It is a nearly-endless catalogue of beefs, perceived injustices, boxing stories, sexual partners, comically wasteful spending, childhood trauma, and substance abuse. (“I was losing my mind,” he writes in one typical passage. “I was getting so high, my brain was getting fried. I was taking phrases from Shaw Brothers karate movies like Five Deadly Venoms. I was quoting from Apocalypse, my favorite cartoon character.”)

The book begins with a refutation of his 1992 rape conviction that is, at best, hard to believe, and at worst, sickening. In this and other chapters dealing with the episode, he portrays himself as a harmless lamb, incapable of such violence. In the rest of the book, of course, he boasts of being a skull-cracking, lady-killing ogre of the first degree, “The Baddest Man on the Planet.” But he’s also, plainly, pathetic and tormented, unable to outrun his chaotic childhood in a brutal, fatherless Brooklyn. Somehow, these contradictions work to the book’s benefit. All of these things — specious outrage, he-man arrogance, formative tragedy — make up the man. His story isn’t consistent — but who ever expected consistency from Mike Tyson?

coverUndisputed Truth wasn’t the best book I read in 2015, not by a very long shot. (That honor would probably have to go to T.C. Boyle’s wild, unsparing The Harder They Come.) But when I look back on my year in reading, Tyson’s autobiography sticks out in my mind. If writing is an act of getting one’s purest self onto the page, then with Undisputed Truth, Mike Tyson has written well. Sure, it’s essentially a stream-of-consciousness chat with a tape recorder; there’s no “craft” to speak of here. But in his willingness to discuss, brag, and lie about his strange and corrupted life, I found him, finally, demystified. I had missed the Spinks knockout not because Tyson was some dark and mysterious god, but because my brother and I had arrived at the party too late. “As soon as I entered that ring and looked over at Spinks, I knew I had to hit him,” Tyson says in Undisputed Truth. Pretty simple, actually. That was all I needed to hear.

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is a staff writer for The Millions and an associate editor at MAD magazine. Find links to more of his work and follow him @Jacob_Lambert.

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