Katie Kitamura, The Longshot


Cal has been persuaded into one last fight by his mentor Riley.  Four years earlier, Riley watched his young protege endure a hammering from the emerging talent Rivera, now the proverbial king of the ring.  Rivera is a barbaric talent against which tougher fighters haven’t endured beyond the first round.  Rivera, however, has agreed to a rematch with Cal who has been drifting on the periphery of the total fighting scene since that fight perhaps because  Cal is also the one fighter that Rivera has never defeated by knock-out.  Riley and Cal are now journeying to Tijuana for what is hoped to be the second stage in Cal’s fighting career…

That this is a debut novel by a young Japanese-American female author should shock the hell out of more mature male authors.

Katie Kitamura may be a girl but she deploys words like a prizefighter throws punches.  Her sentences are staccato-sharp with not an ounce of flab.  Whole chapters are poetry to fight-motion even when Cal is described as doing no more than walking down a stret. In the sparring and fight scenes, the reader can feel the tension in Cal’s legs as the fighter’s feet dance across the canvas and can feel the savage blows when he begins his final bout in the ring.

Imagine getting into a ring to fight someone for a very modest purse using a combination of boxing, karate, kick-boxing and whatever else floats your boat.  You are not angry with your opponent but you know you will get hurt even if you are the eventual winner.  What emotion would you feel most?

More than any other writer describing the sensation of being in a fight from the fighter’s point-of-view, Kitamura captures the raw fear as it claws up and out of your gut and up the back of your skull until you can’t even see straight.  Trying to explain to people – I admit, girlfriends – why guys get off on fighting has proven impossible because unless you’ve fought, you can’t understand how the fear becomes addictive.  It is the alcoholic reaching for just one more shot of whisky; it is the speed-freak nudging the car past the speed-limit just to see how the traction holds on the sharp bends in the road.  This is fear as it is lived in the moments before a fight:

He lowered his head.  The stadium lights fell onto his neck.  The light just poured down onto him.  He could feel it falling.  He could feel it like he was seeing it in particles.  They were getting into his eyes, like dust.  He kept having to blink his eyes to keep them out.   He lowered his head further.  He lowered it so that his chin was driving right down into his chest.

His head was light.  His body was light.  It was the detail that was doing it.  Everywhere there was detail.  He placed his hands on the ropes.  The grain of the rope, each individual piece of ribbing – just the touch was enough to burn him.   His toe brushed against the canvas, and he felt the give of the ground against the tug of the nail.  It wasn’t just the rope and canvas.  He could feel the detail in everything.

He could see everything.  He could hear everything, he could hear the guy in the right tier, leaning forward to pick up his beer.  He could hear the kid sitting ringside, flapping his program up and down on his knee.  Everywhere there was detail. The detail was setting him apart from where he was.  It was pushing him close.  Too close to see where he really was, and what he was really doing –

Look at the way Kitamura has set up the sequences above: there are no names; Cal – and the spectators ringside – are reduced to their bare essence.  The surroundings become as alive – as near transcendant – as Cal’s own feelings.  As the pre-fight adrenalin begins to flood into his blood, so details become sharper and assume a resonance that is lacking in ordinary life.  In effect, the animal within Cal is beginning to come alive.  What a fantastic way to begin the climactic scenes.  Look then at the actual structure of the sentences: they are no more than the subject, object, verb style that Graham Greene recommended to all writers.  As each paragraph progresses, you can feel Cal begin to lift himself into the familiar rhythm – what he has earlier described as ‘the habit’ – of the fight.

Now tell me which male author could craft the same sharp storytelling.  Simon&Schuster have a real talent on their hands and this book – published in paperback on 1 June 2009 – should do well simply because the author’s biggest triumph is to achieve what only the greatest accomplish: that is, for her hero to be rendered as a mortal, doomed to fail and then to age, bound to be superseded by the next great hero.

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