By Katie Kitamura (Simon and Schuster)
You’ve heard this storyline before: A fighter, seeking to redeem himself and his flagging career, challenges the reigning champion who once dethroned him. Katie Kitamura, in her gripping debut novel, The Longshot, transforms the premise by wrapping it in prose that’s as efficiently spare as a trained pugilist’s footwork. A journalist who has followed mixed martial arts extensively, Kitamura brings convincing veracity to the last days before the rematch, as fighter Cal and his trainer Riley grapple with the long odds against them. The question looms: Is it all worth it? — and if not, what drives the fighter’s persistence in savagely punishing his body and spirit? Because it is punishment, captured beautifully by Kitamura’s visceral depictions of the fights. As the confidence of Cal and Riley changes to despair, you witness the desperation of characters who see one way out: Fight to the end. Given the brutality of the sport, it is admirable that Kitamura almost succeeds in making the fighter relatable — you feel pity, though not empathy, for Cal’s predicament. But Riley’s anguished commitment to his fighter is tangibly moving. This is a knockout book even for non-lovers of the sport.