Okay, because I’m a slow and careful reader, I’ve spent plenty of time recently plowing through Matthew Polly’s two books, American Shaolin and Tapped Out. I came across the former in the library, I felt like reading a good story, especially one that involved martial of some kind. And then I got sucked in, so I had to check out the latter more recent book as well.
Polly is a fine storyteller. I want to say this is unfortunate, because he’s also annoying. Anyway, some people just have the storytelling gift down naturally, and he does. The first book is written about 15 years after his experience of being a kid, early twenties, and jumping a plane to find the source of the tradition of Shaolin martial arts in China. The second is a shorter description of a contrived project, taken on in order to please an editor and find an audience, in which, as a now late thirties overweight dude, he gruelingly trains for and then goes through with an MMA (mixed martial arts) fight.
In the first chapters of American Shaolin one is astonished that he’d just get on a plane to search for the Shaolin monks, not even having any notion where they are. And how exhilarating that he actually finds them, and (in that era, anyway) they’re for real, and he bonds with them, and learns from them, and has all these really cool adventures. And you kind of forgive some of his idiocy and fear and hatred of women because he’s just a kid, although I have to admit that more than once I thought, hey, the guy who’s writing this shit is a lot older than that now.
But I have to say this first one particularly is a good read, despite all the warts. He does have a talent in drawing characters, and of these there are plenty. And his banging his head on Chinese culture is revelatory and sometimes hilarious. He doesn’t try to overextend or wax overly poetic. You feel like you’re there with him. And although in the style in which I train that showy high kicking stuff is regarded as essentially bullshit from a fight standpoint, he does go the distance with some serious fighters, and it’s fascinating stuff. (I would acknowledge that even with those high kicks those monks could kick my ass for sure).
And all in all I found the second book riveting as well, but more disturbing. It’s kinda sad to learn that after he came back from China he let himself go, dropped out of the training world and became an overweight, lazy journalist fuck, for years and years. I guess that’s a pretty common middleclass American guy trajectory. And yeah, I suppose I shouldn’t throw stones (though good Lord I want to, now I’m in the best shape of my life — well, in a few decades) but it’s just a little disappointing. However this one assignment pretty much saves his life and paradoxically (because he gets hurt a lot) gets him back on track to health, as he himself attests.
At the outset I admit I didn’t know jack about the MMA world, and its huge promotions. I’m definitely going to research it and watch some stuff now. And through this book you learn the ropes (okay, yeah, that’s a pun), and get to see it from the inside, and for this one must be grateful. Although I must add that he seems to have a hard time finding what level to teach to – like sometimes he talks at length about stuff I imagine all MMA fans have to know, like who GSP is; but then he doesn’t explain jargon like “passing the guard,” which comes up again and again, frustratingly. And yeah it was stunty for him to enter that world as a journalist participant voyeur and set up a match and train for two years and all. But it was also gutsy, and his portrait of that world is entertaining and at times enlightening.
Part of being a good storyteller is that you dump your self out there for all to see, warts and all. And this is a major part of Polly’s charm. He tells all, so you feel like you have to root for him; he’s an everyman sort, a regular guy, a guy who’s not afraid to wear his failings on his sleeve. The other side of this is that he’s both a good guy and at the same a dickhead from the heartland. Of course the fight world is kind of a dickhead magnet, but that doesn’t mean one has to admire dickhead traits. I mean, here’s a guy who studied and seemed to absorb some genuine teachings at some point, some Chuang Tzu for heaven’s sake. Yet he’ll write lines like this: “As Joey would say, you’ve got crack in that punch, son. As boxers would say, the last thing to go is power. As I would say, the only things you gain with age are wiliness and racism.” Excuse me, did he just say what I thought he said? And sometimes one gets the feeling that he’s got a real mean streak in him, which can be useful for a fighter, but I’m not sure he’s in control of it. But the biggest problems are with his attitude toward the ladies. In the first book his terror of anything female seems about half-conscious and half poorly camouflaged. In this second book the misogyny hasn’t gotten any better, although he actually finally miraculously finds love and marries his love “Em” (not her real name) who comes across, amazingly enough, as pretty damned savvy, but one can only pray for her poor soul. As usual he spills his guts over her. Don’t get me wrong, I usually appreciate men spilling their guts… it’s just in this case, he’s so awkward, so naïve, and his view of women is just so fundamentally distorted and juvenile. Really it’s just the usual dichotomy where they’re either on the pedestal, or they’re sluts and bitches. But I guess, again, it’s just the norm. I guess we’re still in Kansas, Dorothy.
Yet all in all I must admit I dug the fight scenes, and a lot of the description of the training is just plain inspirational. I may feel begrudging about it but I didn’t hate the experience of these books, in fact I’m happy enough to have gone through it. If you’re interested in martial stuff, these are both worth a look.
Personal note: I recently learned the Okinawan form of karate which I studied for a time, Shorin-ryu, actually derives from Shaolin, so it really means “Shaolin style”. Even the style I study now derives quite significantly from the Chinese, I believe — although thankfully the show-off kicks have been eliminated… Nonetheless it is interesting to get a gander at the source of the river, as it were…