“Headshot” Is a Knockout of a Debut


When journalist Pierce Egan coined “the sweet science” back in 1813 to describe boxing, he probably didn’t realize that he was making the sport catnip to writers for centuries to come. Popularized by A.J. Liebling, who used it as a novel title in 1949, the phrase’s conception of boxing as a craft, requiring both physical prowess and intellectual strategy, has captivated writers as diametrically opposed as Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates ever since. It also helped enshrine the sport as a distinctly masculine pursuit, despite the fact that women have been boxing since at least the 16th century; the United States held its first public “lady bout” in 1876. But female athletes have never quite shed their scrappy underdog reputation, and it’s this persistent neglect both professional and personal that Whiting Award-winner Rita Bullwinkel grapples with in her vigorous debut novel, Headshot

Like an ambitious athlete, Bullwinkel sets a high bar for herself to clear by severely limiting the structure of her story. Almost the entirety of the book takes place over a single weekend during the 12th Annual Daughters of America Cup at Bob’s Boxing Palace in Reno, Nevada, but as an added degree of difficulty, it also almost never leaves the confines of the ring, at least physically speaking. Readers are introduced to the girls during their bouts against one another, but it’s best not to get too attached to anyone since, like a bracket, the characters are winnowed down as they get knocked out of the tournament. There are the judges (all male), and the coaches (all male, too), and around two dozen spectators that dwindle in number as the day goes on, but otherwise it’s just us and what’s going on inside the competitors’ heads.

Bullwinkel’s origins as a short story writer (her collection Belly Up came out in 2016) are evident in the vividness with which she delineates each girl’s point of view, even the ones we only get to know in a brief span of time. Take, for example, Andi Taylor. She is not the superior athlete in her first round matchup against Artemis Victor, who comes from a long line of boxing champions. Andi drove four days from Tampa, Florida on her own to get here; Artemis has a small cheering section. Andi works as a lifeguard and recently pulled a dead child out of the water, which is an event she spends much of the fight trying and failing not to think about. Her fate isn’t surprising, but like a beloved player traded to another team it’s staggering how much we wish the best for her in the moment and forget her the instant she’s gone from the spotlight.

There are some qualities that the girls share, though: most prominently, that they want to win but have, to varying degrees, accepted they are losers simply by virtue of being a woman in their chosen field. They are all simultaneously self-centered and self-conscious in the way teenagers often are. They all seem to be white, or at least race goes unacknowledged, which seems so odd given boxing’s overall diversity that it must be a deliberate choice, though one that left me mystified. They are all varying degrees of working class; this is, for better or worse, a sport that attracts competitors with something to prove, and the stakes are higher than just the $100 prize money and plastic trophy. “Everything I want I have to give something for,” one of the girls thinks during a match. In many ways, Headshot is what they collectively give to us. 

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They don’t treat one another with kid gloves, however, and neither does Bullwinkel; her prose pummels the reader in the same way the girls pummel each other. They are always referred to by their first and last names, which gives the writing an incantatory, almost anesthetic quality. Composed of short spurts of action, the chapters go by at such a clip it might induce whiplash. This makes sense for a book about boxing, though at times it risks feeling a bit schematic and repetitive as the fighters are reduced from eight to four to two. The omniscient narrator even comments on this at the start of a late bout, stating that as everyone takes their places, “there is the implication of a loop, or the suggestion of a repetition, a circular groove within which the tournament has fit its narrative.” Like the characters, we are kept constantly on the edge of exhaustion.

What keeps Headshot from collapsing under the weight of its affectations is Bullwinkel’s idiosyncratic eye for detail and her committed compassion for these girls, and the women they’ll eventually become. There are multiple moments in each chapter where the narration leaps not only beyond the bounds of the ring but beyond the bounds of time, flashing years, sometimes decades, into the future. When Artemis, who has broken her hand multiple times, is sixty, for instance, “she won’t be able to hold a cup of tea.” None of them have achieved what they thought they would when they were young, but the same could be said for the vast majority of teenage athletes. Throughout the present, a lamenting refrain keeps recurring at the lack of spectators for their matches, that nobody back home will know or care about their victories. Above all, they want to be seen in a metaphysical, even spiritual, way and it’s this chance that Headshot gives them, and what makes the novel a worthy addition to the sportswriting canon. Observers can admire “the sweet science,” but thanks to Bullwinkel, we know the real score.

By Rita Bullwinkel
Published March 12, 2024

Sara Batkie

Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection Better Times, which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is now available from University of Nebraska Press. Her stories have been published in various journals, honored with a 2017 Pushcart Prize, and twice received Notable Story citations in the Best American Short Stories anthology series. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives and works in Madison, Wisconsin.


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