I was sent not one but two copies of Katie Kitamura's first novel The Longshot back in 2009 when it was published. One copy went off in the twenty-eight bags that go to the charity shop every so often and the other sat on the shelf waiting to be read.
And it waited.
And it waited, until eventually it went to the charity shop in the next twenty-eight bag exodus (I'm not sure why twenty-eight but it's always about the same) and I thought no more about it. A book about a fighter of mixed martial arts surely not really my cup of Earl Grey. Then Cathy St Germans waved the book at me a few months ago and said how much I would enjoy talking to Katie Kitamura in my tent at Port Eliot, and I assumed that countenance at which I'm rubbish whilst thinking 'Heck which shop was it...I'll have to go and buy it back.'
In the event some lucky people had clearly bought both copies and hardly feeling in a position to ask for yet another review copy from the publishers I did my penance and bought one.
And now I've read it and feel I should assist it to a little resurgence because when I hunted around for reviews I could hardly find a thing about a book that I can't believe didn't garner some praise and recognition when it was published.
Riley and Cal ...trainer and fighter.. are driving down to Tijuana for a return bout with the legendary and fearsome Rivera, some four years after Cal took him the distance, eventually losing on points, and now the only fighter that Rivera hasn't knocked out.
The relationship between the two men is one of loyalty and trust. Cal trusts the decisions Riley makes on his behalf, Riley has belief and what slowly becomes apparent is that Cal may be past his prime, Rivera may be approaching his and Riley may well have misjudged this whole thing.
'Riley would believe when no one else would believe. He wasn't like some guys. He had no problem with believing. He'd believe in his fighters so that they didn't have to believe in themselves. He'd do it for them. He loved it, the believing. It was everything to him. But this time he was beat.'
I know enough about boxing from those years of watching the late Henry Cooper with the late Harry Carpenter commentating, and who both somehow made it all respectable enough for us to watch as children, and how we yearned for our 'enry to beat Cassius Clay aka Muhammed Ali.
And how we gasped when someone landed a low punch, and after the bout our 'enry's groin shield with dents would be waved in front of the cameras as proof of foul play.
And don't talk to us about the smelling salts and glove-ripping episode, and the way our gaze would be fixed on our 'enry's left eye and that cut which always sealed his fate. All this years before Katie Kitamura was even born, but I know about haymakers and jabs and southpaws and also the phrase 'Put your dukes up kid' when a play fight amongst father and sons is about to start in our kitchen, and usually descends into the lesser known martial art of teatowel flicking, and I say 'I've got to go and look at the blog' and this lioness leaves her pride of boy lions to it.
But The Longshot is boxing with a difference, and I was confused until I'd grasped it, this is mixed martial arts so it's fine to knock a man down then you seem to be allowed to carry on and kick him in the head, the knees the lot. Ribs are likely to crack and teeth will go flying..
It's brutal, it's frightening and such a testosterone fuelled world makes interesting subject matter for a woman author (though these days it's not supposed to matter and I'm probably not supposed to draw attention to it) and for which she has been likened to Hemingway, so I can see that Katie Kitamura and I will have plenty to discuss.... and I'm relieved to have really enjoyed this book or we'd have an hour talking about our wellies.
The themes are universal to the human condition not just the world of fighting... pride and confidence, fragility and the psychology of winning and losing, the glory of victory the ignominy of defeat along with the panic, fear and humilation that all mix into the soup of daily life. In The Longshot the challenges all huddled into a professional fighter's life with an intensity that had me sweating as they are played out in those three days that Riley and Cal spend together before the fight. They are the underdogs, the inferior, low-budget two-man team staying in the cut price hotel room whilst Rivera luxuriates in a gym of his own. Cal is not only the longshot of the title because the book is also a wonderful longshot of an interior world I only know of from without.
It's all about appearances too, reading the body language of the opponent, the aura that surrounds him, the mixed messages conveyed by concealment, what can be read into Rivera's no-show at his pre-fight sparring session. It all fuels the speculation and as the tension and anxiety rise uncontained, both Riley and Cal must face their inner demons before Cal finally steps into the ring.
And when there are things to fear, and that tension rises, Katie Kitamura's writing shifts in shape from the relaxed dialogue of the car journey or the diner, to short, clipped, jabbed sentences which cath you between the eyes and with the odd upper cut thrown in for good measure; the sort of writing that forces you to take short sharp breaths to match the pace and to hold your breath as you wait for the right hook to come flying in and land you on the ropes... and I won't tell you whether it did or it didn't.
190 pages of less is more, a perfectly constructed novel and Katie Kitamura the very first festival guest in the dovegreyreader tent at 2pm on Friday July 22nd and no throwing in of the towel on this one, The Longshot a great read and with a film in the offing Katie and I have much to discuss.