Review: After the Lights Go Out

After the Lights Go Out by John Vercher (Soho Press, Bookshop.org, Audible)

What is the thing that you love to do, that you do best? Is it your job or a hobby, or maybe just a dream? What drives you to do it, even when it gets hard? Were you influenced by some trauma or hardship to pursue it? Have you made sacrifices so that you can continue to practice, so that you can get even better at it? What would it feel like – physically and emotionally – if that most-loved thing was fighting in a cage?

To paraphrase one (controversial) MMA fighter, you gotta have “daddy issues” in order to fight – otherwise you would just go to college and use your mind to make money. That is of course a gross oversimplification, but not completely off the mark. Considering the great financial cost of constant training, the huge emotional cost of devoting so much time to training, the very small chance of making money as a professional fighter, and the physical cost of regularly getting punched in the head, there would have to be something deeper, something beyond simple ego or competition driving a fighter. 

In After the Lights Go Out, John Vercher explores the complexity of this choice through the body and mind of Xavier Wallace, a mixed-race black fighter whose concussions are starting to catch up with him. When a lapse in his cognition during training leads to a brutal takedown of an up-and-coming fighter, X is forced to choose between paying that debt with his life or by throwing his next fight. The clinch of this ethical dilemma tightens as X faces the racism of his dying father, the truth of his mother’s love, and the increasingly violent and loud voice screaming in his head. 

One of the most striking elements of After the Lights Go Out is its intertwined corporeal and psychic depth. Vercher separates muscle fibers and draws blood, enticing the reader to the violence of X’s world without celebrating or vilifying it. Whether sitting in a scalding bathtub full of salt water to cut weight or enduring the racist tirade of his father, the reader bears witness to X’s internal monologue, his fracturing memory, and the dark voice emanating from his fight-damaged brain. Again and again, the reader sits with X’s pain as its deeper layers are revealed. I felt uncomfortable and at the same time I felt myself opening up to hold all of who X is – I understood why he fought and why he made the choices he did.

After the Lights Go Out is written with the intimacy and honesty of an outstanding memoir, which means reading it’s gonna hurt while it teaches you something. It made me reflect on my desire to embody the exact opposite of my own mother through fighting; on the loneliness of pursuing a goal that nobody really understands; on the racism that many healthcare workers are forced to endure on a daily basis. This book will resonate far beyond Philly and the fight world, but I am looking forward to discussing it with other combat sports aficionados in X’s – and Vercher’s – hometown.