Katie Kitamura’s debut is one of those novels whose form neatly mirrors its subject. The Longshot is about mixed martial arts (MMA), and it’s as sharp and focused as a fighter on top form. Our protagonists are Riley, an MMA trainer; and Cal, his protégé of ten years. We join them as they arrive in Tijuana, where Cal is due for a rematch against the legendary Rivera, who beat him four years previously. Both Cal and Riley appreciate how significant this fight is going to be.
The Longshot is a short book, and its prose terse to match – but that doesn’t mean it’s undescriptive. Kitamura captures superbly the physicality of the fighting about which she writes, its combination of violence and extreme control. However, what stands out even more for me – and there’s a nice tension between this and the novel’s brevity – is the emphasis on observation. Riley and Cal pore obsessively over videos of Rivera’s old bouts, in search of the key that will enable Cal to gain the upper hand: a little weakness or habit or pattern that could be exploited in Cal’s game plan. That relentless need to notice spills over into other areas of life, as when the two men can’t help observing how each other eats breakfast. But it’s presented most vividly when Cal is finally in the ring against Rivera:
His head was light. His body was light. It was the detail that was doing it. Everywhere there was detail. He placed his hands on the ropes. The grain of the rope, each individual piece of ribbing – just the touch was enough to burn him. His toe brushed against the canvas, and he felt the give of the floor against the tug of the nail (pp. 171-2).
So, Kitamura presents MMA as an all-consuming sport, one that demands the full focus of its practitioners’ bodies and minds. That’s something else brought home by The Longshot’s tight focus; we learn hardly anything about Cal’s and Riley’s backgrounds (save that Cal was a kid going nowhere in life when Riley spotted his talent). If these men have lives and relationships outside of MMA, we don’t see them – and the sport is so important to them that it hardly makes any difference.
There’s a clear sense that Cal and Riley depend on each other, and wouldn’t really know how to function if anything undermine their relationship. That’s why they’re ambivalent about the impending fight with Rivera; it could destroy Cal’s career as easily as revitalise it. Both protagonists have their moments of doubt: Riley visits Rivera’s training gym in San Diego; seeing the talented new kids there makes him feel hopelessly behind the curve. For Cal, a similar moment comes when he sees posters for the match in the streets of Tijuana; his instinct is just to run, to escape. He’s had to become so self-absorbed for his training that being reminded of the reality of the fight in the outside world is almost too much to bear. But both Riley and Cal must go on, because of all there is to gain – and, perhaps, because they’re simply unable to do otherwise.
The Longshot is a portrait of two men pushed to extremes, whether extremes of physical exertion, concentration, or desperation. It’s very well achieved indeed, and puts Katie Kitamura’s imminent second novel, Gone to the Forest, straight on my to-read list.