14 July 2015

Tap Out by Eric Devine

Eric Devine’s TAP OUT was recommended to me based on my interest in boxing and mixed martial arts, but TAP OUT is about so much more than that. I’ve read books about living with poverty, and I’ve read books about living with violence, and I’ve read books about living with abuse, but TAP OUT combined those three elements in a way that was, at times, harrowing.

Tony Antioch calls himself white trash. He lives in a trailer with his mom and whatever abusive boyfriend she’s currently seeing. He goes to school where he sleeps through most of his classes. He goes to bed hungry most nights. But his friend Rob wants him to join Tap Out, the MMA gym in town, to work out some of his aggression.

When Tony gets in trouble at school—trying to, of all things, avoid joining Tap Out—he ends up forced by his principal into joining after all. When Tony was younger, he showed academic promise, with a ridiculously high IQ score, but years of abuse have taken their toll. He’s still bright, but he’s lost all hope for the future, except the hope he gets taking Vo-Tec classes in automotive repair.

Add to that the biker gang of drug dealers in the neighborhood, and it’s an explosive combination.

TAP OUT tackled a lot of things I’ve never been exposed to. Tony spent most of the book hungry. It was so hard to read about that, but it was also good to read about it. A lot of kids (and adults) in the US go to bed hungry every night, but this might be the first time I’ve read about that struggle.

The threat of violence hung over the entire plot like a shroud. It was chilling and intense. The sense of hopelessness, of there not being a choice or a way out, made Tony both sympathetic and absolutely frustrating, because even when he had a choice, he didn’t see it. He’d had hope beaten out of him.

I loved the MMA scenes. I’ve never fought, but I’ve watched my trainers fight (I do boxing and kickboxing for fitness) and it’s a thrilling sport to watch. TAP OUT captured that thrill really well.

It was inevitable the story would turn to violence, and that Tony would have to make hard choices. I was disappointed several times in the choices he made, especially as TAP OUT roared to its climax. But what bothered me even more was the adults in Tony’s life, who kept backing him into corners. I just wanted to smack them. It was like they didn’t understand how to help him. Instead of drawing him out of his shell, they kept shoving him back into it.

I don’t think the adults in Tony’s life were uncaring—not all of them, at least—but they didn’t do a terribly great job trying to understand him.

When the last bell rang, TAP OUT was an intense, gripping novel, and it tackled some tough issues with grace and skill. I really enjoyed it.