Kerry Howley, Thrown, Sarabande Books, 2014
Cameron Conaway, Caged, Threed Press, 2011
Reviewed by Allie Leach
My one experience with fighting was in a self-defense class about five years ago. I was living alone at the time and thought it would behoove me to learn a few tricks and kicks, just in case. What I learned was pretty basic: how to block hits with my arm, how to leverage my weight with my feet, how to get myself out of a chokehold. I've never had to use any of these tactics, thankfully, knock on wood, but it does make me feel somewhat empowered to know that I could. Adding to my confidence is the fact that I was dubbed "the kicker" by older sister, who was self-dubbed "the hitter." My younger sister was "the pincher." These, too, are useful defense tools (and fun super-hero monikers) for all of us Leach women.
Maybe my small foray into fighting is the reason why I so enjoy two books that bob and weave around a similar subject: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), also known as cage-fighting. Reading the books Caged and Thrown back-to-back is as satisfying an experience as I'd imagine watching the Rocky series back-to-back would be for some. (For me, a better comparison would be watching Richard Linklater's Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight series). In any case, the two books—while they focus on a similar theme—approach it so differently. And yet, in both there are echoes that sound of the bittersweet triumph and tragedy that is MMA.
The subtitle of Caged, by Cameron Conaway, is "memoirs of a cage-fighting poet." This sub-title is followed by further sub-titleage: "The story of one man battling his demons inside the steel cage and out." Conaway is the first-person narrator of this memoir, who wears his heart on his boxing gloves. He's not sly or conniving in any way. He's transparent and sincere, vulnerable and open. He's honest and confessional in a way familiar of memoirists: "I believe everyone has a warrior spirit but I do not believe it is the same (or arises the same way) for everybody." Conaway finds ways for his reader to relate to his world, even if they're not the same kind of warrior as he. Another thread: Conaway is not just a fighter, but also a writer. And it's this mind-body dichotomy that he adores, that continually keeps him balanced: "I'm interested in being the best I can be in the squared-circle of a ring and on a squared piece of paper." The memoir is woven together with many colorful ribbons: his MMA-fighting, his training, his diet, his parents' divorce, his loves, his friends, his hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania, his MFA writing program in Arizona, his acting, his teaching, and his poetry. Since Conaway is a poet, it makes sense that within the memoir we find patches of poetry sewn on the pages throughout. The poetry hits on a variety of topics—from cage-fighting to his estranged father—and it's another form of expression for a narrator who's fearless when it comes to self-revelation. In his poem "Cage Fighter," he says: "Men dance like capoeira giraffes mercurial as mercury, unrelenting, like the male praying mantis who continues sex for hours after decapitation." Some may say that his writing is at times too TMI, but that kind of narrator rarely bothers me. That narrator rarely bothers me, that is, as long as the world is involved as equally as the self in the memoir. And the world is here at times: we learn about the history of MMA—dating back to "Greek warriors who served under Alexander the Great during his invasion of India in 326 B.C.;" we learn about legendary martial artists, like Ken Shamrock and Bruce Lee; we learn about the ins-and-outs of MMA.
But the memoir is as much about a son's strained relationship with his estranged father as it is about MMA. Although the father and son share the same name, there are very few remaining ties that keep the pair interlaced. His father is an alcoholic, often times both physically and emotionally abusive towards his wife, daughter, and Cameron. Their relationship is complicated, and one in which Conaway continues to struggle and grapple with throughout the memoir. At times, he's able to see what his father's worth: "he's a good man at his core."
And of course we see the body. Much of Caged details Conaway's training log, which serve as journal entries that punctuate the memoir. These entries describe Conaway's exercises, recipes, and deep thoughts, and they help chart his progress. Conaway also stars in his MMA fights, and his first-person accounts of these fights are gripping: "The blue mat had become his swamp, and he was taking me to the deep end. He was like an anaconda trying to drown me." That said, one of Caged's strengths is how it's not just about MMA. At its core, it's a reflection of a young man's coming of age without his father, and how he relied on other men—his step-father, his coaches, and celebrity fighters—to guide him through his adolescence. It's a memoir emphasizing the importance of the mind and body balance, as seen through Conaway's obsessive need to give equal weight to his intellectual life and his physical life. As the sub-title suggests, it's a meditation on being literally and metaphorically caged in one's life and finding ways to break out.
While Caged details the life of a fighter via memoir, Thrown takes a different approach. In her book-length literary nonfiction debut, Kerry Howley takes us on her three-year journey following two MMA fighters: Sean Huffman and Erik Koch. She's picked two great subjects, who serve as foils not only for one another—Sean's 33, stocky, and ripped, while Erik's 21, sinewy, and spritely—but also for our narrator. Our narrator is a graduate student of philosophy, specializing in phenomenology, and has an erudite voice filled with words like enmity, synesthetic, and quorum. But what's most interesting about this narrator is that she's enigmatic. In fact, her name's not even Kerry, but instead "Kit." In an interesting twist befitting of experimental nonfiction, Kit is a persona that Howley's created. The two women aren't too far off from each other—while Kit's studying philosophy, Kerry's studying Nonfiction writing. Of course, at first, the twist makes me question the credibility of the narrator, and I start to create a list of all those commonly asked questions about "The Truth in Nonfiction," but not for very long. What's most interesting to me is that Kit has an astute, scholarly voice, which perfectly juxtaposes with the gritty, sweaty subject matter.
However, the divide between Kit as scholar and fighters as savages isn't so black-and-white. In fact, one of Kit's theories is that "fighters are an uncommonly intellectual breed." And—similar to Conaway—many of these fighters defy stereotype. Sean likes to talk politics and watch presidential debates; Erik waxes philosophical about fighters as entertainers; Erik's brother, Keoni, packs sage punches like this: "It's interesting to me that so many people are out of touch with what it means to be alive." Indeed, Kit has picked these particular men because they "tended to see more clearly than most."
Much needs to be said about the sheer beauty of Howley's writing. For a book about something as raw and six-packed as MMA, she writes about it with such lyric grace. When describing a fight scene between Erik and another contender, she writes: "He and Cisco step forward and backward, forward and backward, rocking in hypnotic rhythm, a low kick here, a missed uppercut there, and Erik leans low and right and swings his left shin high into Cisco's head and the head whips out of rhythm and Cisco drops like a dead man and Erik lunges onto Cisco and Steve Mazzagatti jumps in between them because Erik Koch is the winner and the champion and millions of people are watching and the whole room is standing and grown men are moaning and as I look at my hands wet with my tears Erik flexes every muscle in his body—hands fisted, arms low—and screams." This gorgeous scene is just one of many throughout Thrown, which highlights Howley's precise and poetic language, as well as kinetic pacing.
In addition to the language, her rigorous devotion to not only understanding MMA, but understanding the men she interviews is incredibly impressive. This is a narrator who's spent three years with her subjects, traveling with them from their home bases in Iowa, to places like Milwaukee, St. Louis, Las Vegas, New Orleans, New Jersey, and beyond. She not only accompanies her fighters on trips across the U.S., but she's along for the ride in Iowa where Sean and Erik and our narrator live. In Iowa, she hangs out with the fighters and their friends at parties, in bars, and in their homes, watching movies like Dodgeball. She's a "spacetaker," a word used to describe the fans who parasitically follow MMA fighters. And while her devotion to the fighters seems contingent on them continuing to fight and win, she's also there for them during their low-points: injuries, relationship woes, family drama, physical blows: "There is an integrity in sticking by your fighter even when he proves himself injury-prone...even when you can see...he will ultimately go down, grow soft, acquire children and a house and pay his taxes on time." Kit is a narrator on the prowl for a good story, for a good fight, for a good collection of "ecstatic experiences." And with her hard-earned persistence and devotion, she finds them.