Cal and his long-time trainer Riley travel down to the town of Tijuana in Mexico for a crucial rematch with the undefeated champion Rivera. Three years earlier Cal's promising career had been derailed following a close yet devastating defeat at the hands of Rivera. After that defeat Cal carried on fighting but never reached the same heights as before. Now he finally gets the chance to face his nemesis once more. The story takes place in the two days before the rematch as he and Riley prepare for the biggest fight of his life, a fight that could once again end in tragedy.
This debut novel by young American journalist Katie Kitamura oozes testosterone from every page. Set in the distinctly shady world of mixed martial arts (MMA) it describes a life of conditioned aggression, where young men are fine tuned into lethal fighting machines. This is a world where women only fill peripheral roles.
The inherently masculine themes and the punchy dialogue driven writing style have led to favourable comparisons to Hemingway. Although these might be overtly flattering to Kitamura she has successfully conveyed the brutal world of MMA prize-fighting with the same energy and gusto seen in Hemingway's classic stories. The choice of MMA over the more traditional boxing as a medium gives an unusual fresh perspective to the story but in essence it could well have been set in an earlier time when boxing was emerging as a lucrative sport run by unscrupulous promoters exploiting desperate young men wanting to make their name and fortune. Kitamura does a great job of bringing to life the rough and seedy world of the professional martial arts circuit. She describes the loneliness of the fighters as they prepare to enter the arena and the feverish atmosphere in the crowded, hot and sweaty venues as the fight fans expect blood and guts from their chosen champions. Not much has changed since the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome.
The narrative is taught and focused, mirroring the sharpness and the intensity of the sport. Through a series of flashbacks the previous encounter with Rivera is retold and the importance of this rematch becomes clear. The themes of the story are familiar ones one could even say epic. Our hero has to redeem himself, face his demons, overcome his fear and succeed in the face of overwhelming odds. Rivera represents the dark force in a primeval tale of good versus evil. Possessing almost superhuman strength and ruthless instincts he doesn't simply beat his opponent he destroys them. Cal had been undefeated until he faced Rivera, that defeat has left haunting self doubt about his ability to ever again be the best. It is not only Rivera's physical threat that Cal has to contend with but also his own crippling fear of failing for a second time.
We never find out much about Rivera, his psyche remains a mystery throughout; he is not really a man but a dark force the embodiment of all of Cal's hopes and fears. Cal on the other hand becomes more and more human as the story progresses and we get to know him better we see his vulnerability that no amount of training can take away. The central relationship between Cal and Riley is interesting. Riley is like a father figure to Cal and feels responsible for the slump that has occurred in his career since the first encounter with Rivera. In many ways Riley sees Cal's potential as a means at making up for his own failure at succeeding in the sport years earlier. But Riley too has doubts and has to agonise over the wisdom of the rematch having to balance his wish for Cal to have another chance against the real possibility that Cal might get very badly hurt and end his career. Cal on the other hand feels he owes Riley another chance, more so that he does to himself. In failing to become the champion that Riley had always hoped for he feels he has let Riley down and the rematch is the only means of correcting this.
Attempting to combine sport with literature is not easy and in the past many accomplished authors have failed. It might be surprising to some that a young female author has tackled such a male oriented subject matter for her first novel but it is obvious from the passion and insight that is brought into the descriptions of the fights that Kitamura feels at ease subject matter, dealing with the masculine themes very convincingly.
There is no doubt that the author is a fan of the sport and has managed to bring the innate tension, drama and uncertainty of the fights to life on the page. Her savage descriptions of the contests bring out the brutality of the sport but also the grace and ultimate heroism of the prize-fighters.
Kitamura has not fallen into the trap of many first time novelist in trying to take on too much and ending up with an overblown, badly structured novel in desperate need of good editing. If anything at slightly fewer than 200 pages this book is too focused. It is so stripped down that it doesn't allow the necessary depth in characterisation that could further engage the reader. But this might be an excessive criticism of what is ultimately an enjoyable and intriguing read. Certainly from the evidence of this novel we can expect greater things of Kitamura in the future.
'The Longshot' by Katie Kitamura (paperback- 224 pages) is available from Amazon for £4.00 at the time of writing this review.
(A shorter version of this review was previously published on Bookbag.com)