Reviews > Published on October 14th, 2014

Bookshots: 'Thrown' by Kerry Howley

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review



Who wrote it:

Kerry Howley (incidentally, Googling her name brings up a completely separate artist who makes some fascinating jewelry out of hair).

Plot in a Box:

Thrown should be required reading for all fans of literary nonfiction.

Howley works as a “seatstealer” at MMA (mixed-martial-arts) shows in order to get close to two very different fighters and chronicle a year of their lives in the ring.

Invent a new title for this book:

Broken Teeth and Bloody Angels

Read this if you like:

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead (also a Bookshot) and Andre the Giant: Life and Legend by Box Brown

Meet the book's lead(s):

Besides Howley herself, there's Sean Huffman, an experienced fighter just coming out of a post-divorce slump, and a rising star named Erik Koch.  

Said lead(s) would be portrayed in a movie by:

I kept thinking of a younger Sandra Bullock.

Setting: Would you want to live there?

I was completely unaware that there was any kind of MMA subculture in Mississippi (I’m pretty unaware of all things MMA) and it sounds like an interesting place to visit.    

What was your favorite sentence?

Jab after jab Sean ate, and with each precisely timed shot to his own mouth Sean’s smile grew, as if The Fire were carving that smile into him.

The Verdict:

Thrown is one of those books that I began with some trepidation, being quite ignorant and not especially enthusiastic about the subject of professional fighting. By about page five, it became apparent that my hesitation was ill-founded, and that Thrown should be required reading for all fans of literary nonfiction. Kerry Howley has a genuine knack with a pen, and it’s sure to carve out a permanent place within the genre. Her ability transforms dimly lit arenas into houses of the divine and tattooed wrestlers into winged angels. Industry knowledge on the part of the reader is not required to enjoy the offbeat humor or vivid imagery.

A narrator can be little more than a disembodied voice, outlining the events of a book from a distant and neutral perspective, but Howley is about as interesting as the fighters she profiles. An erudite but somewhat jaded academic who writes for Harper’s and The Paris Review, she’s not the first person you'd expect to see at a professional MMA match. Her fascination with the violent sport proves strangely contagious, and you’ll begin to wonder after a while why you’ve never given MMA much thought (unless you have, in which case I imagine you’ll feel a satisfied sense of vindication).

Thrown isn’t just about the nitty-gritty details of the fights (although those find a place in its pages as well). A major focus of the book falls on the state of mind of those in the ring, and society’s primal, ritualistic need for blood sport. Finding Sean Huffman as he's being beaten to a pulp in the ring, Howley describes feeling a kind of ecstatic awakening from her normal self. This contemplative, philosophical frame sets Thrown apart as a highly original commentary on a strange world that is often only seen by those who are already looking for it.

Maybe it was partly because I began Thrown with misgivings, but for that very reason, the impression of this title will linger with me. It’s a rare book that successfully transcends the stereotypes of its subject matter, but a combination of skill and devotional attention to detail make it possible here. If you’re looking for a read that engages all of the senses and then some, look no further: Thrown is a safe bet to get your synapses firing.

About the author

Leah Dearborn is a Boston-based writer with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in international relations from UMass Boston. She started writing for LitReactor in 2013 while paying her way through journalism school and hopping between bookstore jobs (R.I.P. Borders). In the years since, she’s written articles about everything from colonial poisoning plots to city council plans for using owls as pest control. If it’s a little strange, she’s probably interested.

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