After the Lights Go Out

John Vercher. Soho, $26 (268p) ISBN 978-1-64129-331-0

Vercher (Three-Fifths) strides back in the ring with the explosive story of a troubled Philadelphia MMA fighter whose career has stalled. When 30-something Xavier Wallace gets the call to participate in a contender fight after being sidelined for months following a bust for accidentally taking a banned substance, he jumps at the chance. Xavier’s pride is on the line, as a brain injury has been robbing him of memory and cognitive function. His career is managed by champion boxer Shot, his glass-eyed cousin who owns the gym where he trains and to whom Xavier owes a huge debt. Xavier’s family, meanwhile, was fractured after his Black mother, Evelyn, left him and his white father, Sam, when Xavier was a child. The truth about why Evelyn left is finally revealed by a racist Sam, who suffers from dementia. The crux of the story lies in Xavier’s seemingly final chance to show his mettle despite a cacophony of personal issues, physical challenges, and an emotionally draining reunion with Evelyn. Adding complexity and depth is Xavier’s internal monologue (“You were born for violence, my guy. We all are. Just some of us are more attuned to it than others”), which alternates between motivation, reflection, and self-sabotage. Vercher expertly captures the brashness and discipline of combat sports as well as the harsh realities of the fighting life, delivering all of it in a swiftly paced triumph complete with a surprising one-two punch of a conclusion. This is simply brilliant. Agent: David Hale Smith, InkWell. (June)
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