Photo by Troy Turi, via https://us.macmillan.com/author/brinjonathanbutler/
In his essay “Homecoming,” the Hungarian writer Péter Nádas explores the idea of an individual’s natural language, a sort of default lens on the world. “It is well known that only a mother tongue can be spoken with perfect naturalness,” Nádas writes. He goes on to reflect that his own mother tongue is death, an early conditioning that prevents him from regarding the world in brighter terms. The writer Brin-Jonathan Butler’s default seems a mix of adventurousness and curiosity, although curiosity is maybe imprecise. That’s to say he’s engaged and inquisitive, genuinely interested in the complexities of individuals and stories, whether or not they track with first impressions and align with a ready-made narrative. If anything, Butler’s such an adaptable approach that, while he may fall short of perfect naturalness in some new mode, it won’t be for fear or lack of openness. His first book, The Domino Diaries, is the most extensive proof of the richness and durability of Butler’s technique.
A foundational aspect of this approach is accepting the realities of the world, the culture, that made an individual and proceeding from there toward greater understanding. He ends up interpreting the world for the reader, but along the way, he allows for the uncertainties and adjustments of reaching that understanding for himself, as well. Consider the task he sets himself in Cuba, prior even to speaking with the great boxer Teófilo Stevenson:
I traveled to Cuba with the intention of speaking with boxers who had turned down enormous offers to leave. When explaining my project to people, again and again I was met with amusement and skepticism. I heard the same sentiment repeated everywhere I looked for fighters: “Something must be wrong with you. The only journalists who come here for a story are looking at why we leave.”
Which makes sense. That very common journalistic approach argues against Cuba’s values and attempts to undermine them. But I wasn’t interested in that side of the story. Anyone can see why an elite athlete would want to leave a small, impoverished country where their skills were effectively uncashed winning lottery tickets. All they had to do was wash ashore almost anywhere else in the world and cash in. Yet the vast majority of Cuban boxers—and Cuban athletes in general—despite that incentive, stayed.
The piece in full is revealing on Cuba in the Cold War era and afterward by way of exploring the life and fortunes of a legendary athlete. It doesn’t shortchange Stevenson’s greatness in the ring, but bolsters it with political, social and cultural context.
More recently, he tackled top fighter Andre Ward, who came of age in Oakland, during the crack epidemic and hasn’t lost a fight since he was 12 years old. Ward’s often criticized for a lack of charisma, a seemingly phony persona, and Butler shows the roots of his elusive and apparently cautious personality, alongside the unassailable toughness Ward deploys in the ring. I wasn’t quite rooting for Ward by the end, but I couldn’t root against him, either.
Perhaps most significantly, Butler has the too-rare ability to insert himself into the midst of a story without his presence becoming conspicuous. Proximity to events doesn’t make the observer (or writer) the de facto focus of those events. When Butler mentions the theft of his equipment during the process of making his Guillermo Rigondeaux documentary, Split Decision, it plays more as a reflection of how snakebitten the fighter’s career has been than a move to turn the camera on himself.
There are only a handful of contemporary writers whose new work I block out time to read at once. A number of those are aging. Within that number, several hail from outside the US. Still others can seem out of step with some of the prevailing trends in contemporary writing. Admittedly it’s a little lazy, or at least an incomplete assessment, to suggest a writer belongs to another time. Brin-Jonathan Butler’s most immediate points of reference and his firsthand experiences are of course products of his time. But imagine plugging him in as a staff writer at a midcentury magazine with a sizable budget and the freedom to devote months to a story, giving him the means and leeway to pursue a story in the breadth and depth it deserves (or requires, per the writer’s sense of it, a too-rarely consulted measure anymore). He’d be a Liebling or a Joseph Mitchell in the making. Against the odds, you could meaningfully argue he is already.
Though his work often uses sports, or competition more broadly, as a jumping off point, Butler is only a sportswriter in the sense that writers like the recently departed Frank Deford, Buzz Bissinger, and the late, great Willie Morris (think The Courting of Marcus Dupree) fit the bill. The sport, or the athlete, in question offers a path to larger, widely shared concerns. That humanizing impulse, and an apparent allergy to glibness and winking irony marks Butler as writer whose work will last. He’s turned his attention now to the insular, rarefied domain of world championship level chess. And true to form, his commitment to getting to grips with that cast of characters and values – and how best to translate it all for readers – has taken over his reading life, too, as you’ll see below:
[I’m reading] Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace.
His essay on the porn equivalent to the Academy Awards was useful comparison to covering the world chess championships for a new book I’m working on for Simon and Schuster. What AIDS was to [the] porn world, mental illness hovers in a similar precarious spot with chess. Both worlds are an incredibly insular and surreal mix of marginalized people, and held up in a usually perversely freakish way. Wallace is a master of deconstruction and a fountain of insights into human nature. I’ve always adored his essays and returning to this one in the present context with my book has only made me appreciate his elegant cast of mind and compassionate spirit more.
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