Simon & Schuster, 2009; 191 pages
From the publisher's synopsis:
Cal and his long-standing friend and trainer Riley are on their way to Mexico for a make-or-break rematch with the legendary Rivera, who has never been beaten. Four years ago, Cal became the only fighter to ever take Rivera the distance, even though it nearly ended him. Only Riley, who has been at his side for the last ten years, knows how much that fight changed everything for Cal. And only Riley really knows what's now at stake, for both of them.In support of total disclosure, I want to say right up front – I got this book free from the publishers, Simon & Schuster UK (A CBS Company). What with all the new blogger-control rules and regs being kicked around, I wouldn't want to piss anybody off (oops, sorry – I mean make anybody upset with me). Don't want the FTC, or any other watchdog group I might not yet know about, coming after me.
However, when I say I loved this book, the fact that I didn't pay for it has nothing to do with it. I would have loved it even if I'd bought it with my own hard-earned cash. And nobody asked me to say that.
At first glance, I would not have said this was a book for me. It's true that I was something of a boxing aficionado as a child (well, I was a weird little girl, OK?) – used to watch the fights every week with my father. And I did go see Stallone's Rocky I about two dozen times when it first came out (still think that's a perfect little jewel of a film). But I've never cared much for the mixed martial arts variety of fighting. All that kicking and jumping and pounding heads on the ground is just a little too much mayhem, a little too far from A.J. Liebling's "sweet science" for my taste. But Katie Kitamura's masterful debut novel is almost enough to make me a fan. Almost.
The book is written in a stripped down and deceptively simple style. Short sentences. No frills or pointless verbiage. The story is tightly focused. Cal and Riley travel to Tijuana for the fight. They stay in a cheap motel. They eat in a nearby cafe. They train for the fight. Riley takes a brief trip back to California for a press conference at Rivera's gym. Cal climbs into the ring for the big event. You learn very little about their past lives or families or time away from the job – and yet by book's end, you can't help feeling you know all about these men. Cal and Riley are each on a journey of self-discovery that we take right along with them. Kitamura is adept at using description for explanation, and allowing her readers to feel the emotion of her characters, rather than telling us about it. It's such a bravura performance that the comparison to Hemingway is, I suspect, inevitable.
You don't actually have to be a boxing or MMA fan or know anything about either sport to like this book – although a rudimentary interest would make it more enjoyable. The relationship between the two men, their exchanges, and the time we spend inside their heads is really what this work is all about. The action is exciting, immediate, and raw, but not as interesting as the story of Cal and Riley. Their journey back into the ring for the biggest fight of Cal's career is moving, psychologically jarring, and a really exciting ride.