“Shortly before he died, he started a novel – in the middle -
and that one chapter is jaw-droppingly brilliant…”
Terry Dobson was the best story teller I ever met. He mythologized himself, to be sure, but his stories, unlike the Baron Munchausens of the world, were true. These stories were a kind of passport through which he could charm, enthrall and inspire – and, truth be told, never let the room go silent.
Beyond story telling, however, is the alchemy of writing. Terry knew that a writer was far more than a teller of tales, someone who can take the raw material of life (think of ore), the story being merely a crude semi-crafted product (iron) and with heat, power and a tremendous amount of work, turn it into art (steel). He never succeeded in this last step, struggling with writer’s block of epic proportions. (Shortly before he died, he started a novel – in the middle – and that one chapter is jaw-droppingly brilliant – just as with his aikido, he left the stage just when he “got it.”) He did, however, leave a number of hours of tapes of his stories. He and his inamorata, Riki Moss, planned turning this material into some sort of book, but he died before getting very far. Riki spent the next ten years struggling with the stories, and with her own story – her life with this man, and her own life while being with this man.
The book is out. It is NOT a martial arts book – although it does have many of Terry’s stories about his time in Japan and back in the states. It is a novel of two people (the Terry character is called Max) and it portrays not only their complex relationship, but a certain scene of aikido/New Age/artists in America. Aside from Max, who is very close to Terry, Riki has taken others in his life, and mixed, matched and permutated them so that they are amalgams of people, but none is clearly in one-to-one correspondence. This is a delicate tension, which I think she does quite well. Personally, I recognized incidents in the book, where I was present but they were placed differently in time, in circumstance and even in impact, and this is the way it should be. A novel is ferocious; it grinds that ore of life and turns it into something new.
If you want a martial arts book, you will be disappointed. If you want to read a novel about a chaotic creative man, struggling with illness and death, and all the better for it, this book should be in your hands. At the same time, Terry had an enormous influence, far beyond his hours on the mat, on one facet of American aikido, and it was truly a product of personality and vision rather than his particular technical version of aikido. Through this love story of two people, and the various people in orbits around them, you get a particular insight into how this could be.
And how can you do better than stories such as Max (Terry) hitting a black cow on a dark night in his pick-up truck and as he flies through the air, thinks, “Born in the Year of the Ox, am I thus to be cowed?”
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Review by Ellis Amdur.