I was on the bus the other day, and the two women behind me were talking about their friend, who recently got a neck tattoo.
“She should never have got that neck tattoo,” said the younger woman, who seemed to be in her mid-twenties.
“Yeah,” her seatmate agreed. She was my age, more or less, in her early thirties. Either of them might have been a housekeeper at a downtown office or a home nursing aid or an “associate” in the sort of big box store that calls its employees associates.
“I told her you don’t want no neck tattoo. Now she can’t get a decent job.”
“Yeah, they’re real strict about that.”
“You can’t even work out front at McDonald’s. I had a friend who had a neck tattoo, and they made her work in the back.”
“I heard that too.”
“Now, I heard about this place, out Monroeville, that’ll take them off, even on your neck, but it’s real expensive. And she’s real dark-skinned. Not like black or nothing. But you know, real dark, though. That makes it harder.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
Neither of these women were, as Joan Didion put it, “destined to be, in other words, communicants in what we have come to call, when we want to indicate the traditional ways in which power is exchanged and the status quo maintained in the United States, ‘the process.’” As for Didion, so too for me: they reminded me of the people I knew in high school.
If I am going to write about Kerry Howley’s first book, Thrown, in which she follows one fairly lucky and one mostly unlucky Mixed Martial Arts fighter around, mostly in the Middle West, then I am going to have to say something about where I grew up. Howley reserves a particular disdain or mistrust for people who end up back where they started from, and so do I. Disdain and mistrust are a kind of obsessive fascination for me. There is something terrible and inescapable about the territory of our adolescence, even for those of us for whom high school (or college, or grad school) was decidedly not “the best years of our lives.”
My own geographic biography is an inverted tale of economic decline. My dad’s professional fortunes improved in inverse proportion to the shittiness of the cities and towns in which we lived, and so, over the course of my youth, we migrated from Pittsburgh, where we had very little money, to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, an old coal town an hour and a half southeast, ever nuzzling up to the unshaven edge of real decrepitude, where we had quite a lot.
Despite this, or because of it—for appearances, for the politics of running a big local employer and being, therefore, a “community leader”—I went to public school. Most of the attention the American media pays to poverty and education focuses on America’s urban public schools. Urban is a euphemism I use advisedly. It means black, and this narrative fits into the comfortable, or at least familiar, narrative schemes of what those who are “communicants” in “the process” would surely call our “national conversation on race.” But poverty and the quality—or lack—of education are likewise features of the country’s great internal landscape, its patchwork of communities with populations measured in the less-than-hundred-thousands, those places where people still talk about “the mines” or “the mill” or “the factory” in that tone of tragic intimacy that a Supreme Court Justice, for example, would reserve for “the Founders’ original intent”—which is to say, something that they can’t admit is irretrievably lost.
Uniontown hadn’t legitimately been a mining town since the sixties, and it was fashionable among our set of professional and entrepreneurial families to lament that the town’s and the surrounding county’s persistently impoverished majority “thought that the mines are coming back.” They didn’t really think this, any more than Antonin Scalia thinks he can really commune with the psychic intentionality of the mind and pen of James Madison. We believed the usual platitudes. They needed to get a better education. They needed to be retrained. They needed to learn new skills. To what end, of course, we hadn’t any answer. There’s a certain kind of essay—you see it in the Atlantic, or in the Sunday “Week in Review” in the Times—in which some analyst from the Carnegie Endowment or the Brookings Institute laments the inherent political problems and social inequities of petro states in the Middle East. But what is most of rural America if not a stretch of one-crop or one-resource towns?
Fayette County, Pennsylvania is Appalachia, while Kerry Howley’s new book, Thrown—most of it—takes place in the Midwestern heartland. These two geographies aren’t exactly the same, but they have much more in common with each other than they do with either of the coasts or with the coastal outposts that are the university towns scattered in between. These are places where people work warehouse jobs at warehouses that have to be guarded not because of their contents, but because of the lack thereof. These are the sorts of places about which smart sociologists write popular books whose titles include the question, “What’s the matter with?” These are the sorts of places where to be a writer is, as Kerry Howley is, or claims to be at one point, to be a sports beat reporter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. (Full disclosure: Howley’s husband, the writer Will Wilkinson, has interviewed me about my own book, and as writers, he and I are on friendly terms.) These are places where some young men—like some of the young men Kerry Howley writes about—think that an octogenarian libertarian physician from Texas is the only thing that can save the politics from which they have generally absented themselves. These are places where some of these same men take up fighting.
Some of the funnier moments in Howley’s book occur when her new interest in MMA comes into bruising contact with her education and perceptions of social class. Graduate school professors scoff at her efforts to understand fighting as an ecstatic experience. Professionals gasp that the sport is bloody and uncivilized. There’s a particular irony in the way we conceive of what constitutes bloody and uncivilized. I know more than a few people who can nod sagely at a Samantha Power essay on why we must bomb some distant outpost of another country to smithereens, shattering its infrastructure and killing by the hundreds, in the name of a vague humanitarianism, but who think that fighting in, say, ice hockey (a sport close to my own fan’s heart) is the height of barbarism.
Some of the saddest moments come as Sean, one of Howley’s fighters, pursues an increasingly desperate and usually quixotic quest to spend time with a baby that may or may not be his. Howley splits her stories more or less evenly between Sean and a second, more successful fighter named Erik Koch. Erik suffers a few reversals in fortune, but even in these, he is preternatural. To be preternatural is to be, in some sense, immune to the sort of unmediated ecstasy that Howley is interested in as a writer and as a philosopher. I’m not sure if she would agree with that assessment, but it seems plain to me. Erik is an example, while Sean is an embodiment.
Thrown follows Howley following these two men over roughly two years. It is gracefully (and thankfully, if you’re a reader) free of the dire, formulaic, aesthetic predictability of the kind of writing that now goes by the dreadful portmanteau longform. In other words, it reads like a real essay, not a piece of prestige-magazine journalism. Howley’s style is both mannered and melodramatic, adjectives that somehow came to be insults when applied to writing (along with sentimental). This is writing that knows that you know that it knows what it’s doing. I happen to like this kind of writing, which lays out its own artifice. “[F]or there is nothing more irritating to the devoted fighter than the non-fighters who so desperately wish to be among them.” There’s a school of thought that says that “for” is preposterous and pretentious. I found myself taken slightly aback by it at first. It had an anachronistic quality that shaded into the rule-less and anarchic; likewise, an excessively formal quality that implies an aggressive dissension with the boring, conversational tone that prevails in so-called non-fiction these days. In other words, it read like fighting, something superficially anarchic and unconventional, while underneath: formal, a bit old-fashioned, its messiness tempered with elegance.
Anyway, Howley gets into all this by accident. She finds herself at a “a conference on phenomenology, where a balding professor stunningly wrong about Husserlian intentionality dominated the postconference cocktail hour.” Bored with this company, she wanders through the conference center and stumbles into a MMA fight, where she encounters Sean for the first time playing “fat slobberknocker to another man’s catlike technical prowess.” As he’s beaten and beaten—Sean represents our most persistent fighterly archetype, the Rocky, whose main characteristic is not actually victory, but the beatific ability to take punishment—Howley experiences “the oddest feeling of a cloudiness momentarily departing.” She becomes, in fighters’ lingo, a spacetaker. This is a portmanteau I don’t mind. It means something midway between entourage, roadie, and amanuensis. Like a lot of Damascene moments, it seems to happen in a flash.
As a writer, Howley owes a lot to Didion, although she lacks Didion’s moral starkness and, sometimes, her control. This is a small but persistent flaw.
Understand that I was very excited by the spectacle, and not until my ride home, as I began to settle back into my bones and feel the limiting contours of perception close back in like the nursery curtains that stifled the views of my youth, did it occur to me that I had, for the first time in my life, found a way out of this, my own skin.
It’s the “this, my own skin” that feels superfluous, especially in a long sentence already weighted with a neat, but weird, simile, and the claim itself seems overdetermined by the narrative of fighting, whether for the fighters or the spectator, as a form of ecstatic experience. Frankly, it’s a little bit pat. Was this really the first time she felt this way? Never before while getting high or having sex or finishing a tough workout? On the other hand, these small flaws serve to make the brighter prose appear all the more sharply cut. Toward the middle of the book, Erik, on a career upswing in Vegas for a big fight, is starving himself in order to make weight. (Actually, many of the best bits of Thrown involve food. Among others, Erik and company visit a high-end Italian joint in New Orleans, where they note, correctly, that bruschetta is a silly word.) Here is the writer at her best:
The fast food Erik purchased, [his] friends ate slowly, wafting ground-beef-steam toward their skeletal driver, leaving the paper crumpled and the scent hovering. This seemed to me deranged culinary masochism, but Erik insisted that he could not possible starve himself so effectively if her were to take his mind for a moment off of food. And in this, Vegas was cooperative, for to the starving man, Vegas offers comforts one does not necessarily associate with the city. At The Rio Resort and Casino, for instance, if you can see past the seamlessly linked rooms for poke and keno and slots, past the singing girl in sequins, a stream of light, a wisp of smoke, if you can see past the plastic neon-lit flames leaping over paisley carpet and the “future Chippendale fan” pink onesie featured in the giftshop window, past the spiraling staircase up to the heavily curtained Italian restaurant meant to evoke fine dining but suffering that regard from its direct adjacency to Wetzel’s Pretzels, if you can gaze beyond the gargantuan goggle-eyed head hanging from the Masquerade Room, or if you are, like Erik, quite literally starving, you will notice that this city is not merely a purveyor of monetary risk, but a purveyor of food.
Here is the layering of one small detail and observation upon another, a bit of verbal mimesis for the way the actual casino obscures its underlying purposes with an accretion of flashing doodads, until a quick turn and a surprising observation. Where is she going with this, you wonder, halfway through. Oh, right. Vegas is a purveyor of food. All those buffets! That startling and very American shading of blessed plenty into gluttony. Howley frequently links the utter abandon of fighting with the utter abandon of shoveling a giant burrito down your trap. Well, is she wrong?
I suppose what really made me think of Joan Didion when I read Kerry Howely was a commitment to a certain method. A mode of seeing. “When I first went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967,” Didion wrote in the opening pages of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.” Howley drives these guys around, watches Pumping Iron with them, wonders whether she should tell Sean that his baby might not really be his baby. Had she accepted the sclerotic, ossified standards of unexamined objectivity that make so much journalism so unreadable these days, Thrown would have been one more quirky portrait of American life on the edge, interchangeable with any other piece of pseudo-ethnography. Instead, obeying Montaigne’s adage and making herself the subject of her book, even as it ostensibly documents the lives of others, she permits herself an empathy that invites surprise.
On a trip to New York with Erik, Howley finds herself in Times Square. They “commenced their principal New York activity, which was staring.” The boys are fascinated not only by the lights above, but by the homeless and the insane.
I was proud to be among men who looked not only up at the majestic flashing lights, but down at the women slumped in alleys, who treated each part of the spectacle with equal fascination. Experienced travelers tend to avoid places they call “touristy,” but one of the many lessons fighters have taught me is that if you want to see a place unknown to the world, the truly untraveled anteroom of any city, go to the most touristed place in your vicinity, and look down.
This passage occurs in the last third of the book, and it represents the culmination of a kind of sentimental education that began with the merely inchoate feeling that there was something wrong with the intellectual life she’d been pursuing, a feeling that coalesced into a realization that much of what passes for intellectual life is little more than ersatz sophistication pasted over the dullest sort of middlebrow, bourgeois prejudice.
When I was in college, I was briefly in love with a young man named Neil. Like me, he was a writer. He was straight, mostly, but he was fluid enough in that regard to give our flirtation a sense of solid possibility, even if it never really went anywhere. He was louche, perverse, and hard-living. I was envious. A decade later, I ran into him at a college reunion, and I was shocked to find that he’d taken up boxing. Later, he went to Thailand to study Muy Thai. He died in an unrelated accident back at home in New York. I remember wondering what on earth could send an Oberlin grad, a writer, a web designer, a success by our ordinary reckoning, all the way to Thailand in order to get the shit kicked out of him. It seemed utterly nuts. I still think of him from time to time; having read Thrown, I think I understand a little better what impelled him to seek such a radical form of abandon halfway around the world.
If there is a central theme—better, a central philosophical concern—to Thrown, it is the relationship of ecstasy to precariousness. When Howley contemplates how Sean, aging and cauliflower-eared and dissipated and no longer as invincible as he once was, might “transcend the bounds of possibility,” she has to learn to “accept the mechanics of Sean’s world, in which we were always on the brink of tragedy until, miraculously, the world arranged itself in our favor.”
Maybe this is the indictment of those of us who think of ourselves, without irony, as professionals. Those of us who stand behind the old woman in the thrift-store jacket at the gas station and wonder if she understands that her odds are not really improved by buying ten lotto tickets all with minor variations on the same lucky numbers. Those of us who can’t believe that these guys on disability think the mines are going to open again. Those of us who have never used, and can’t imagine using, a payday lender. Those of us who occasionally get a box seat at a Steelers game from some company that does business with our company, but who would probably never find ourselves ringside while two dudes wail on each other for fifty or a hundred bucks.
In fact, I suspect that much of the world lives with these miraculous mechanics, rarely winning, but taking the blows with a grace that seems impossible when you’ve never been punched in the head. Have you ever wondered if it isn’t poverty or lack of education or lack of sophistication or lack of jobs or lack of opportunity that represent the endemic social pathology, but rather, a certain kind of affluent blindness that constitutes the most notably unhealthy social condition of our culture and our time? In this regard, Thrown is the best sort of essay, not an argument, but an antidote.