"Four years earlier, top Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter Cal took on the powerful Rivera, who won the fight by judges' decision. Now, at 29, Cal's out to stage a comeback, la Rocky Balboa. Spare and beautifully written, this debut novel follows Cal and his loyal trainer, Riley, as they head to Tijuana for the rematch. Cal and Riley privately wonder if they've made a huge miscalculation; Rivera this time is after a knockout, and Cal doubts that his body can withstand Rivera's pounding, and questions if the fire in him is passion or just an overwhelming fear of retirement. In the world Kitamura creates, only these three men exist; there is no family or friends. She reveals Cal's heart and mind as he struggles to understand himself as a man and as a fighter and paints the portrait of Riley as a loving but gruff friend and mentor. Kitamura, a journalist who for years has followed MMA matches, brings a physicality to her story with descriptions of the action so vivid the reader feels the pain of every punch and kick." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
A brilliant, spare debut novel that follows a former mixed martial arts star and his longtime coach over the course of three fraught days as they prepare for his momentous comeback match.
This reading group guide for
The Longshot includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Katie Kitamura. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
In The Longshot, Katie Kitamura tells the story of mixed martial arts fighter Cal and his trainer, Riley. Cal is on his way to a rematch with Rivera, a now legendary MMA fighter with whom Cal had a disastrous fight a few years earlier; a fight that doused the flame of passion Cal had for MMA fighting. Three years later, Cal and Riley respond to Rivera's request for a rematch. For Cal, it presents an opportunity to get back in the ring with the person who made him question his love for fighting. For Riley, it gives Cal the chance to become the fighter he once was -- a powerful, fast champion who could easily become the best in the MMA circuit.
Kitamura focuses on the electrifying days before the fight which find Cal and Riley traveling, training and traversing a number of obstacles, both physical and psychological. In a unique narrative form, Kitamura gives insight into both the minds of Riley and Cal, leaving us alone with each of them for a few minutes at a time. In doing so, readers feel like they are really there and share the anxiety and excitement of stepping back into the ring with Rivera for the fight.
Questions for Discussion
1. A number of times over the course of the story, a certain question comes up: What went wrong in that fateful fight between Cal and Rivera four years ago? Discuss Cal and Riley's conflicting opinions on what actually happened. Who do you think is right?
2. Riley comments that in the beginning of Cal's career, Cal got so used to winning that he just thought it was "the way it was."(p. 16) How did that make losing to Rivera that much harder for him? Why has it taken him so long to get back into serious fighting?
3. What was the result of Murray and Rivera's fight? Do you think Cal would rather follow in Murray's footsteps than risk another defeat by Rivera? Why do you think he chooses to fight him again?
4. Cal and Riley each experience a fight-or-flight impulse during the twenty-four hours leading up to the fight. Why does each of them decide to stay? How do you think the novel would have turned out if one of them had fled? What would it have meant to the one who got left behind?
5. Discuss the dwindling of Riley's optimism over the course of the book. What makes him realize that Cal should not go into the fight? Why does Riley shut his eyes and say, "Things would have to play out. There was no other way" (p. 150)? In your opinion, was there, in fact, another way?
6. What is Riley's game plan for Cal's fight with Rivera? Why do trainers create a game plan, and why does he think it will work? Does the strategy actually come into play during the real fight?
7. Discuss this statement: "The kid had everything a fighter needed and if he didn't become champion then Riley would have no one to blame but himself" (p. 15). Why does Riley put so much pressure on himself to turn Cal into a champion? Do you think this blindly leads him into believing that Cal can win the rematch?
8. Even though he has never been knocked out, why do you think Cal "guessed he knew the feeling" (p. 23)? Why is it so important to Cal to remain standing in the final fight?
9. Having read Kitamura's work, do you agree with her statement that "there was nothing simple about a fight" (p. 27)? Did The Longshot change your perspective on the world of mixed martial arts fighting, on the people involved in it, and on the fighting itself? Why or why not?
10. Do you agree with Kitamura's assertion that "a fight was just a series of logical conclusions" (p.111)? If so, how do you feel about Cal's claim that habit overrides fear, logic and need (p. 139)?
11. Do you think Cal dies at the end of the book? Why or why not?
12. The Longshot could have been a much longer story. Why do you think Kitamura chose to keep it short in length and free of much description? How does this choice affect the story's impact? Does it make it more or less powerful? How so?
Enhancing Your Bookclub
1. Want to learn more about Mixed Martial Arts fighting? Visit http://www.mixedmartialarts.com.
2. Have a movie night with your bookclub and rent David Mamet's latest movie, Redbelt, which focuses on a mixed martial arts fighter.
3. The present-day events in The Longshot take place in Tijuana and San Diego. If any of you have been to either city, describe it/them, and, if possible, describe the dramatic differences between them, and what those differences might mean about class and about the respective affluence of the United States and Mexico.
4. If your bookclub is up to it, watch an MMA fight on TV -- or, better yet, take a trip to a live fight to experience it firsthand.
A Conversation with Katie Kitamura
1. How did you become interested in mixed martial arts fighting?
I was introduced to fighting by my older brother, a tattoo artist who is friendly with (and has done tattoos on) a number of fighters. The first fight I saw -- the rematch, for those who follow the sport, between Mirko Filipovic and Kevin Randleman -- set something off. In that fight, a powerful narrative was communicated in incredibly economical terms (forty-one seconds, for the record). And I was captivated by the physicality of the fighters, the stories that were evoked in their bodies and movements.
I think I pretty much knew immediately that I wanted to write something about fighting, and my brother was a great guide to the sport. We've been to fights around the world together, watched and rewatched our favorite fights, endlessly debated the strengths and weaknesses of individual fighters. We're pretty extravagantly different; while I was studying for a Ph.D. in American literature he was busy establishing himself as one of the top tattoo artists in the world. But fighting is something we're both completely passionate about. He's now had the word LONGSHOT tattooed on his knuckles, and that's the cover image for the book. So the whole thing has come full circle in a really wonderful way.
2. Where did the inspiration for Cal and Riley come from? Are they based on anyone that you know?
The individual fighting styles and physical descriptions of Cal, Rivera and Luis are based on fighters that I met while researching the book. It was very useful to have a visual image of the characters while I was writing -- in an odd way it helped clarify for me what the characters would or wouldn't do.
I didn't have a specific model for Riley, but in a lot of ways his character emerged as a foil and partner to Cal, so once I had a sense of Cal, it was quite easy to write Riley's character.
3. Much of the intensity and tempo of The Longshot stems from the fact that it takes place over the course of only a few days. Did you ever consider telling a longer, more drawn-out story? Why did you choose to write it the way you did?
I always wanted to make the book as taut as possible, both in terms of style and structure; I wanted it to come as close as possible to the rhythm and feel of an actual fight. The device of focusing on a fixed period of time was fairly integral to the way I thought about the book from the very beginning.
Having said that, I did at one point consider a radically different structure, whereby the book would be split into two parts. The first half would be told from Cal and Riley's perspective, the second from Rivera's. I went so far as to write out an entirely different second half for the book, but in the end it didn't work.
4. Did you intentionally leave it ambiguous as to whether Cal dies at the end? To your mind, did he die?
For me, concretely speaking, he doesn't die -- but it has been a question for quite a few people, and I'm happy for it to be ambiguous.
5. The events at the end of The Longshot are seriously disappointing, if not outright devastating. Did you ever have an alternate ending in mind, wherein Cal won? Or did you know from the start that Rivera was going to win?
It was initially an open question, but the further I got into the writing of the book, the more it seemed apparent that Cal couldn't win, although there were plenty of moments when I wished he could!
6. You have a particular perspective on the athlete/trainer relationship -- you go so far as to write, "A trainer was supposed to protect his fighter.... That was the promise. That was what kept a fighter and a trainer together." (p. 144) Have you ever had a close relationship with a trainer, coach, or teacher?
I trained pretty seriously in classical ballet when I was younger, and I think that ended up informing a lot of the book. The idea of physical strain and discipline, the question of how and when you leave that life behind -- they're things I'm familiar with on one level or another. And, of course, the relationship with a trainer. It's a relationship that is built on expectation, which is necessary but also rather dangerous.
7. In your capacity as a journalist, you have spent time in the world of MMA, traveling to California and Japan to watch fights and interview fighters. What is it like to watch a fight live? What are the fighters like outside of the ring?
The experience of watching a fight live is extraordinary. I have to confess that I experience it as an extreme form of anxiety. I end up having a completely irrational, emotional stake in the outcome of a fight -- in that sense, I'm a shameless fan.
In total contrast, I'm amazed by how relaxed the fighters themselves are before a fight. Outside the ring they are a disparate group, but on the whole I found them to be smart, funny and extremely generous. They were very open about their experiences, which was useful in researching the book.
8. Are there certain MMA fighters that you admire? If so, can you tell us a little bit about them?
I pretty much admire anybody who has the discipline and the will to make a career out of fighting. It takes buckets of nerve. What struck me most was the incredibly public nature of what they were doing. The first fight I saw live, the fighter I was shadowing lost in front of a crowd of forty thousand people. The scale of that is staggering to me. Undergoing that overlap between something very personal and something very public strikes me as both admirable and also somewhat terrifying.
9. Despite the dangers involved, have you ever thought of stepping into the ring yourself? Or are you more comfortable on the sidelines?
No, absolutely not. I'm not one to probe my limitations.
10. What is next for you?
I'm working on my next book, and researching fish farms.