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Book Review

First-time novelist’s spare prose packs punch

In “The Longshot,’’ Katie Kitamura stresses action over adjectives in describing the world of ultimate fighting. In “The Longshot,’’ Katie Kitamura stresses action over adjectives in describing the world of ultimate fighting. (Sophie Fiennes)
By Carlo Wolff
September 3, 2009

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In her debut novel, “The Longshot,’’ Katie Kitamura delivers the reader into the exotic, bruising, and hypermasculine world of mixed martial arts with startling economy and even more startling insight.

Full-contact MMA, sometimes called ultimate fighting, is a blend of ju-jitsu, kickboxing, and wrestling defined by quick, brutal moves, lightning takedowns, and jarring pain. “The Longshot’’ is the story of Cal, a gifted, laconic fighter; Riley, his even more withdrawn coach; and Rivera, the self-contained champion Cal is to meet for a rematch after four years.

It takes place over three days and builds relentlessly, ending on an ambiguous, provocative note. There is careful, accurate dialogue. There are few adjectives. Action dominates, with preparation for that action a close second.

Kitamura excels at slicing and dicing to build tension. A longtime journalist and former dancer, she has followed MMA for years. The Hemingway of “Men Without Women’’ influences her style. Another forebear, particularly in mood: Leonard Gardner’s 1969 novel “Fat City,’’ a gritty tale of boxers in the Central Valley of California.

Kitamura’s viewpoint and accuracy, however, are all her own. Hers is a dry-eyed viewpoint expressed through detail so sharp freeze-frames seem to turn kinetic. Here’s Rivera weighing in, through Cal’s eyes:

“Rivera stepped up. He stepped up delicately, almost mincingly - he always weighed in that way. That was the vanity. He couldn’t afford the vanity in the ring, but it came out in other places. Rivera saw himself. The thought struck Cal - Rivera saw himself, all the time. Cal never saw himself. But Rivera, he saw himself, as a physical object being observed. That was why the vanity came out at the weigh-in.’’

It’s not the vanity that matters so much as the aura of invincibility. Cal doesn’t have that; while he’s self-aware, he also has doubts, as does Riley. How they contain those while preparing for the fight constitutes much of the drama of this terse, freighted book.

Although it focuses on Cal, Riley, and Rivera, it’s also a meditation about aging and relevance. One of the most powerful scenes spotlights new, young fighters from Rivera’s training camps. Their technique - fresh, unpredictable - tells Riley his day is almost past. But first there’s the rematch.

As it approaches, Cal and Riley come to be of one mind. The tension, meanwhile, blossoms into a kind of lover’s triangle, with Cal caught between Riley, with all his doubts and hope, and Rivera, with his determination. And the bout becomes inevitable:

“ ‘Kid.’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘We don’t have to do this.’ Cal closed his eyes. Riley watched him. ‘If you don’t want to, we don’t have to do this. There’s no reason.’ ‘It’s too late.’ ’’

The fight is nasty and takes Cal to school and then some. Riley, too. One lesson of “The Longshot’’ is you must fulfill your commitments, if only to find out what you’re made of. Another is that Kitamura is a major talent.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.

THE LONGSHOT By Katie Kitamura

Free Press, 224 pp., $14

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