A troubled mind

A troubled mind

Mike Tyson has written a memoir about his life of fame, excess and despair that is a splashy hodgepodge, which is exhausting and fascinating, writes Michiko Kakutani .

For many years, Mike Tyson lived a life without brakes. The youngest heavyweight champion of the world at the age of 20, in 1986, Tyson would become as famous for his run-ins with the law and the wretched excess of his lifestyle as he was once feared and revered for his boxing prowess.

Tyson’s new memoir, Undisputed Truth, written with Larry Sloman, is a splashy hodgepodge of a book, by turns exhausting and fascinating, self-pitying and candid. Parts of it read like a real-life Tarantino movie. Parts read like a Tom Wolfe-ian tour of wildly divergent worlds: from the slums of Brooklyn to the high life in Las Vegas to the isolation of prison. And parts read like transcripts from a marathon therapy session, in dire need of editing.

The book shares the title of Tyson’s one-man stage show, but in terms of raw emotion and psychological drama, the volume has more in common with James Toback’s powerful 2008 documentary Tyson, which was based on hours of taped interviews with its subject. Tyson’s idiosyncratic voice comes through clearly on the page here — not just his mix of profane street talk and 12-step recovery language, cinematic descriptions of individual fights and philosophical musings, but also his biting humour and fondness for literary and historical references that run the gamut from Alexandre Dumas to Tolstoy to Lenin to Tennessee Williams.

Tyson gives us earnest efforts to make sense of the crazy extremes of his life; angry, pull-no-punches portraits of people he feels victimised by (like boxing promoter Don King, whom he describes as “a wretched, slimy reptilian” guy who “contaminated my whole barometer”) and colourful descriptions of the “bling-bling” life he led at the height of his fame, including a Las Vegas mansion furnished in everything Versace and with a pool “ringed with seven-foot statues of fierce warriors like Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Genghis Khan and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the Haitian revolutionary.”

Perhaps because of uneven editing, the book’s more compelling sections are intercut with repetitious mea culpas and perfunctory inventories of drug and sex binges. (At one point, Tyson claims he was “juggling at least 20” girlfriends.) Passages devoted to particularly notorious aspects of his life — like his tumultuous marriage to actress Robin Givens, his 1992 conviction for the rape of a beauty pageant contestant, and his 1997 biting of Evander Holyfield’s ear — are among the more predictable parts of the volume.

By far the most absorbing sections of this book deal with Tyson’s pungent descriptions of individual fights, served up in immediate, visceral prose; his hard-knock childhood on the mean streets of Brooklyn; and his transformation from an awkward, fat boy, who was cruelly bullied — a kid named Gary stole one of his beloved pigeons, “twisted the bird’s head off and threw it at me, smearing the blood all over my face and shirt” — into a fearsome warrior, under the tutelage of his guardian and trainer, Cus D’Amato.

“Cus wanted an anti-social champion,” he says, “so I drew on the bad guys from the movies, guys like Jack Palance and Richard Widmark. I immersed myself in the role of the arrogant sociopath.” He says he eventually created the “Iron Mike persona, that monster,” but underneath remained “this scared kid who didn’t want to get picked on.”
The young Mike Tyson — hungry for love and glory — was eager to be D’Amato’s soldier, but D’Amato’s death in 1985 left him feeling lost and abandoned. Tyson says that during his 2002 loss to Lennox Lewis, his body not only let him down, but he also realised that his will to fight — to be Iron Mike — had left him.
“Iron Mike had brought me too much pain, too many lawsuits,” he says, adding, “each punch I took from Lewis in the later rounds chipped away at that pose, that persona. And I was a willing participant in its destruction.”

There is a lot of self-mythologising at work in these pages. But if Tyson sometimes seems to be spinning or rationalising episodes in his life, the reader gets the sense that his book as a whole is less a calculated attempt to rebrand himself than a genuine effort by a troubled soul to gain some understanding of the long, strange journey that has been his life.

In fact, there is a kaleidoscopic feel to the book: the older, more introspective Tyson, now 47, looking back, with a combination of revulsion and regret, at his younger self, trying to come to terms with his contradictory, often self-destructive impulses. The book is peppered with boasts: “I was Clovis. I was Charlemagne. I was one mean son of a bitch”; “I was a titan, the reincarnation of Alexander the Great.” It’s also filled with lots of self-abasement: “I was a pig back then”; “I was just a sewage rat with delusions of grandeur.”

After the death of his four-year-old daughter, Exodus, in 2009, Tyson was determined to change his life. He has built a new life with Kiki and their children, but he does not claim to have found peace or closure or redemption — or any of the things that many celebrity authors boast of in their memoirs. Instead, his book ends with him still struggling with his demons. “I truly want to deepen my relationship with Kiki and see my kids grow up to be healthy and happy,” he writes. “But I can’t do any of those things if I don’t have control over myself. I can’t help anyone if I’m not well myself, and I desperately want to get well.”

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