Sometimes subject matter is secondary. John McPhee, for example, can write about long-haul trucking or lacrosse, subjects I’ve got no interest in, and I’ll read each word and marvel at how he’s able to make the topics so compelling, rich, and human. Kerry Howley’s subject matter, in her potent and consuming debut Thrown, falls into the same disinterest bin as trucking and lax, but she brings such vigor and aliveness, such seductive use of detail and tension, that it’s impossible not to lose oneself in the bloody, funny, brutal, balletic world of mixed martial arts. In other words, I don’t care about cage fighting, ultimate fighting, MMA; Kerry Howley made me care.
Bored and disillusioned at an academic conference on phenomenology, Howley, an essayist who’s written for the Paris Review, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, and a graduate of the University of Iowa’s non-fiction program, wanders off for a break from the blowhards. She happens upon a sign that announces the Midwest Cage Championship, and takes a seat in the crowd. She’d never seen a fight before, and is taken in immediately, the blood and spectacle in righteous opposition to the chatter about Husserlian intentionality she’d just fled and academic ivory-towerdom in general. “It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses,” she writes, “such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across the mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself.” This first fight, witnessed by accident, is a path-changer, and Thrown is the account of Howley inserting herself into the lives of two cage fighters. Sean is an aging jab-eater, a fighter looking at his last chances who moves “like a fat man on hot coals”; Erik is a rising star, tall and lean, “a slippery-fast blossoming prodigy.” Howley gains her place as a “spacetaker,” a step up from a groupie, part of a fighter’s inner posse, with access to most aspects of their living, from the size of their burritos and videogame habits to fraternal feuds, possible parenthood, forehead sutures, and months and months of training for minutes of combat in the octagon.
She gets close to Sean and Erik both and masterfully builds tension in the lead-ups to fights–not only will they or won’t they or how well will they do, but will she still be welcomed into the fray. Howley is aware of the fragility of her role, how tenuous the position of spacetaker is–a trusted member of the group can be snubbed at any moment. It’s necessarily a physical book, and there’s sex between some lines: “I lay in bed at night picturing Erik thrown back in the swell, all his perfect plenitude, the pressure of his abundance, the way it would overbrim its boundaries at some unknown date and time. I could only wait, the energy all gathered and damned up in my limbs, for the moment of release I knew to be coming.” These fights for her are orgasm, are ecstasy.
What Howley finds during the first fight she stumbles on, and what she chases afterwards is exactly that experience of ecstasy, and she places the sport, and herself as a spectator, in a long tradition of ecstatic spectacle. The Lotus Eaters, the frenzied maenads, spirit questers on peyote. To experience this sort of ecstasy is to be removed from oneself, to be stripped of the body’s tired reminders of hunger, thirst, need. “The categories of sight and sound no longer applied,” Howley writes, “for a mind in the throes of ecstasy had expanded outward, beyond these rough tools of perception, to greet the universe without the interference of anything so frail as an eye or an ear.”
So it’s not just the drama of busted elbows, landed punches, and split brows, though Howley’s descriptions of bodies in fight are memorable; something much greater is at stake. There’s epic poetry in the cadence of her sentences, a Homeric sort of rhythm: “When the man in charge ran out of fighters he’d ask the fighters to fight again, and Sean always said yes. He never lost an amateur fight, not once. Thirty times he fought this way.” Howley signals with the elevated language, and with references to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, that what we’re dealing with here is not just two dudes kicking the shit out of each other on a mat, but something on the level of war and wandering of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and perhaps even more elevated than that.
It’s a brushing up against the eternal, the infinite, and it’s antithetical to paying bills on time, desk jobs, and high fiber cereal. One of the most striking aspects of the book, and one I found most compelling, is Howley’s disdain for conventional middle-class life. I suspect some will find it offputting when she writes: “I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.” Or “Should I ever decide to spawn a nuclear family and enjoy their dull companionship between bouts of desk-ridden drudgery–to live, that is, in what Sartre called “Bad Faith–I shall return with all due haste to [my hometown]. But until then, I resist the temptation, lest the comfort and simplicity of a conformist life suck me back into its maw.” The fights and her fighters serve as antidote to the “entangling mundanities of the ordinary world.” There’s an electricity here, a welcome and unexpected fervency in opposition to the widespread messages we get regarding rest, weddings, carbohydrates.
We’re all of us looking for people to justify and reinforce our own choices (which is why some no doubt will feel scoffed at by Howley), and she justifies hers with a quote from Nietzsche: “A preference for questionable and terrifying things is a symptom of strength.” One’s left wondering what pulls Howley in those directions. Early in the book, she makes short and offhand mention of a fact about her parents which I had to read three times to make sure I understood, and it raised questions the answers to which could only be guessed at. What we know: Howley seeks to flee the self and the battles serve as an expressway to that end. But if fighting is a fleeing, so is storytelling: “All narrators are fiction,” Howley writes.
The book is about fighting, yes, about an extreme sport and some of the men involved, who maybe aren’t, after all, Odysseus or Hector, but possessing of a more earthbound sort of humanity and heroism. It’s about the the strong pull of home, the powerful binds of blood, and the press, everpresent, of time. In what we seek, Howley shows us what we fear. We flee ourselves–in fights, in sex, in the light hitting the trees in the late afternoon, in the bottom of a third glass of wine–to find something else, to escape time and entangling mundanities, in an effort, ultimately, to avoid the experience of being alone.