Grappling

By Nicholas, Paumgarten | The New Yorker, December 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Grappling


Nicholas, Paumgarten, The New Yorker


GRAPPLING

Down on the mat, Atticus Lish writhed out of a choke hold. The bigger man, Rene Dreifuss, spun and grappled, maneuvering toward a guillotine grip--a clench of Lish's neck, with the crook of his arm squeezing the carotid arteries to cut off the flow of blood to Lish's brain. The force of the struggle ran them into a padded wall. They paused for a second, each making sure the other was O.K. Brazilian jujitsu, sparring time in the rat cave--Dreifuss's name for the basement of his mixed-martial-arts studio, on West Twenty-ninth Street, in Manhattan. Dreifuss the teacher and Lish the pupil: Lish, after a minute or two of wrestling, tapped the mat in surrender. It was Lish's first time there, but they recognized each other from apprenticing together in California, a dozen years ago. Lish liked Dreifuss's cerebral approach. "Let go of the power and play smart," Dreifuss said. Lish was used to the fighting gyms in Brooklyn and Queens where guys just beat the crap out of each other.

Lish had recently published a novel, with a small press called Tyrant Books, which earlier published a book by him of bawdy cartoons. He'd never really written anything before. The novel, called "Preparation for the Next Life," is about a messed-up Iraq War veteran and a Uighur immigrant trying to make a go of it in Queens. It caught the attention of Dwight Garner, who raved about it in the Times , finding in its grim portrait of veteran and immigrant life (flophouses, strip-mall kitchens, jails) "the finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade." Lish doesn't read reviews.

At forty-three, Lish looks like a guy who might write a book like that: muscular, with bright-blue eyes, a shaved head, and a cauliflowered right ear. But at ten years old he was a clever boy with a bowl cut at a Manhattan private school who told his friends he was reading the dictionary. His father is the editor and writing teacher Gordon Lish--Captain Fiction. Precocity: Don DeLillo, a close friend of Gordon's, used a passage from one of Atticus's fourth-grade compositions to end his novel "The Names."

Then, one Saturday afternoon, still age ten, while home alone and not really actually reading the dictionary, Lish came across "Fists of Fury Theater," a kung-fu-movie show on WPIX Channel 11. An obsession with two things took root: China and fighting. "I wanted to be Bruce Lee," he said last week. He studied Chinese in prep school, then mathematics at Harvard, but he dropped out in his junior year. He was getting into fights and into trouble with the police, and working out some issues with privilege and promise. …

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