Brin-Jonathan Butler owes his life to Mike Tyson.
Butler was a battered and bullied teen afraid to leave the front door of his house when he heard the enigmatic former heavyweight champ in a televised interview talk of also being bullied and of the famous authors he was reading while in prison for rape.
Never good at school, Butler raced out to buy five Tyson biographies and all of the novels Tyson had suggested. Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea was a revelation. In the years that followed Butler wrote half a million words in three novels he'd rather forget. He left his Vancouver home at 18 for Spain, then went to Cuba at 20. “I thought I had to lead a life worthy of writing about,” he says.
But first there was the Vancouver boxing gym a frightened Butler entered at age 15, all 5' 2” and 115 pounds of him. He'd never kissed a girl, but he'd soon learn to take a punch. “If you're out of shape or new, the ring is one of the loneliest places in the world,” Butler writes in his memoir The Domino Diaries. “The worst blow, for my money, is the first big one that hasn't hit you yet, it's just hanging there on the way to hitting you.”
Cuba and boxing are the centerpiece of Butler's memoir, but, as it does with Tyson, the teenage bullying lurks and transformed Butler into a writer. “There was a lot of rejection at the outset,” he says. “When I was in Cuba I just started taking notes about how confused I was by this place.”
The Old Man and the Sea was the first novel Butler read, and it introduced him to Cuba, a place where he would end up spending 11 years haunting boxing gyms. Butler was fascinated with Hemingway's choice to spend the last 20 years of his life in Cuba. Then there were the Cuban boxers like Teofilo Stevenson who turned down $5 million to leave his homeland for a fight with Muhammad Ali.
Cuba was “mysterious, alluring, enigmatic,” Butler says. It was also more complicated than the picture of Communist oppression and brainwashing presented in the United States. For instance, he says, after a win a Cuban boxer seeks out someone to thank. “Vancouver where I grew up was a livable city, but we didn't know our neighbors,” Butler says. “In school we learned 'stranger is danger.' In Cuba there are no strangers.”
There's a very mixed message from Cuba, where personal freedom is hard to come by, but where humanity thrives, Butler says. 'Our economy is based on desire instead of need,” he says. “That doesn't exist in Cuba. You can't buy your way out of your feelings. Human beings need to feel.”
Butler's memoir is told through the “lens of a broken family” with Cuban families split between the homeland and the United States where parts of Miami can be seen as a recreation of Havana for Cuban defectors. “No family is untouched,” Butler says. “There’s a deep sense of homelessness. In contrast my mother left Budapest, but she’s never nostalgic. She’s happy with her new life in Canada.”
His lack of formal writing training pushes Butler’s writing style into interesting places just as the boxing ring did. He contributed unpaid articles about Cuba and boxing to Salon, which caught the notice of a literary agent. Butler went on to follow the story of Cuban boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux, who left his family behind to fight where the boxing payday is: the United States. The result was both the book A Cuban Boxer's Journey and the documentary film Split Decision.
“With boxing there's no barrier to entry,” he says. “It's not like any other sport in that way.” With writing? “Not having a writing background allowed me to come at it from a different angle. People said, ‘This is not sports writing; it's too literary and artistic.’ But I see boxing as a metaphor for why people struggle. Why we fight reveals who we are as a people.”
Butler last visited Cuba in 2011 and is barred from returning, but The Domino Diaries already has also become a time capsule as Castro's Cuba opens its doors more and more to tourism just as the Obama administration signals an easing of travel restrictions. “It offers a glimpse from a trespasser to the last days of Castro's Cuba from the view on streets,” he says.
The mix of good and bad lessons to come from his Cuban experiences stick with Butler, who is now at work on another book that would make Hemingway proud—about bullfighting in Spain. “I didn't set out be a travel writer or a sports writer,” he says. “I'm just a junkie for a good story and I'll go anywhere I can to find it.”
Joe M. O’Connell, author of Evacuation Plan: A Novel from the Hospice, is based in Austin, Texas.