John Vercher’s After the Lights Go Out is a stunning sophomore release from the Edgar and Anthony Award-nominated author of Three-Fifths. I absolutely loved the grittiness and social commentary of Three-Fifths and looked forward to his latest release with great anticipation. After the Lights Go Out is a fight novel, and honestly, I think it is the first one that I’ve ever read. Knowing what I know about fight cinema, however, it’s clear that the heart and strength of Vercher’s character-driven story has the momentum of an emotionally gripping comeback story unparalleled in the sports fiction genre.
The Scarecrow Xavier Wallace is reentering his MMA career after a stint of being away from the sport after accidentally taking banned drugs in an earlier fight. It’s time to see if his chops still keep him a contender in the cage, but some major puzzle pieces from his life seem to encroach on his confidence and training time as contest opportunities get nearer. There are interpersonal politics with his cousin at the MMA gym that end up coming to a head, caring for his father with dementia at his nursing home where his mental acuity unveils frightening truths about their relationship, an estranged mother, a mistreated dog up for adoption that needs the love he never had… And atop all of this, X struggles with an undiagnosed and increasingly severe case of undiagnosed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that is taking a larger and larger toll on his perception of the world, his relationships, and a fear that he might end up just like his father. The question remains whether he will be able to cut weight and prove himself in the cage one more time and keep the teetering house of cards that is his life together before it all topples down.
This novel was a powerhouse of character-driven moments where we see the life of a fighter with dreams and aspirations of living a good life with an early retirement seem just out of reach. But the story’s complex narrative has a much more human component than that, from examining the effects of divorce on a grown man trying to manage the feelings of resentment and responsibility for his parents’ lives to navigating the difficult to define needs of his own life. These aspects of the piece hit home for me at such a visceral level, as a middle-aged man trying to attain my aspirations but balance a career, death, mental illness, and relationships that, no matter how much you water and tend to the common garden, are the weeds that sap the nutrients of self-growth. There are other aspects to the book that fascinated my sense of storytelling that Vercher is incredibly adept at including into an already packed piece, such as the effects of race on a family and a community struggling with identity, or the debilitating effects of head injuries on athletes that he presents with an understated but increasingly chilling impact on our narrator’s perception of his world and the way in which the story is told.
Vercher’s second release is another triumphant piece at the beginning of a promising and increasingly vibrant career. While I have not been a fan of sports novels, this one is truly magnificent and engaging and reminded me of the wonder and heartbreak I had at the end of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. As always, I am hungry for more from Vercher.
Image Credit: Marian Beneš, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons