“There was no ball, no goal, no base. There was nothing but air and intention. The two fighters made the fight. Together they had to make it real.”
Mixed Martial Arts fighting is not a subject one would expect to find a large readership outside the sport’s loyal fanbase. But in her debut novel, The Longshot, Katie Kitamura mines this tense psychological territory, this ripe and humming ‘air and intention’, and fashions from it an absorbing, intense and terrifically written page-turner. Readers, myself included, who wouldn’t think to try it, emerge amazed at how much they have engaged with the characters and their journey. For the thing about writing and storytelling the world over is that it’s not so much what you write about that makes a story, but how you do so.
The plot follows Cal - once the next big thing, a fighter with the potential, the skill to become champion – and his friend and trainer Riley, as they head down to Mexico for a long-awaited rematch with Rivera, a legendary and undefeated fighter. Four years ago, Cal took him the distance, the first fighter to do so. But it cost him. That defeat, the realisation of his fallibility and the memory of pain. These have left their mark. This time, the fight is all or nothing for Cal.
Set over four days leading up to and including the big fight, The Longshot is a fast paced, insightful and exhilarating work of fiction by a major new talent. Kitamura matches her style to the violent masculine subject matter, producing a taut and convincing tale of two men on the edge of a psychological precipice, a glimpse of the intensity of an athlete/trainer relationship, and a powerful portrayal of the joys and pitfalls of dedicating life to sporting success. Kitamura demonstrates an economy of descriptive prose – take away place names and there are perhaps only a handful of words of more than three syllables in the entire book - but not of either intensity or emotion. She employs her sentences like short sharp jabs and kicks, elucidating the psychological landscape of fighter and fighting in a way that is accessible and attractive both to fans of mixed martial arts and the lay reader. She recreates the rhythms and intensity of a fight. Yet does so in a way that simultaneously conveys violence and the synchronicity of movement characteristic of ballet, of two physical people enacting an age old series of steps that contain narrative and personality and, yes, beauty.
That Kitamura knows her mixed martial arts fighting is unquestionable: intricacies of movement and intention, the significance of a look here or a tactical manoeuvre there, individual styles and possibilities and outcomes. The Longshot grips you by the scruff of your neck and drags you on, dangling the inevitable conclusion before you but intertwining it with moments of hope and expectation that you cling to in the hope of a different outcome. The fight is the book: its outcome will be the books outcome, and like the best sport (and fiction) its drama is created by the gap between what you expect will happen and what actually does.
The Longshot has some of the power and unexpurgated lure of The Call of the Wild by Jack London, speaks both to our primitive and visceral natures and the refined order we expect from sporting contests. There is something of Patrick Ness too, in the power of the narrative voice and concise ability to use punchy, short sentences to supreme effect. More apparently the spare style owes something to the likes of Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy.
It’s not just the fight that packs a punch. There are amazing scenes throughout: the relaxed journey down to Tijuana; Riley watching Rivera train; Cal taking an early morning jog to clear his head before the fight. It’s a complete work of fiction. No chinks in the defence, no wasted sentences. Kitamura writes these men so convincingly that it is impossible for even the most gender focused critic to argue that writers cannot write successfully across gender boundaries.
The Longshot takes readers out of their supposed comfort zones and into the psychological and physical heart of a fight. It hooked me inside the first ten pages and didn’t let go until long after I’d finished. With strong characters one can engage with and a plot that is hard hitting, intimate and raw, it’s an enjoyable and rewarding read. Without a doubt, it’s one of my very favourites of the year.
The Longshot was first published in the UK by Simon & Schuster in 2009. Edition shown was published by Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in 2010. ISBN: 9781847395214, pp191