“After the Lights Go Out” pulls you into the ring and then breaks your heart

John Vercher’s new novel about a struggling MMA fighter grapples with racism and loss, loyalty and trauma.

by Jody DiPerna

Xavier, a 30-something, down on his luck MMA fighter at the tail end of a suspension, works  to get back into fighting shape and back into the ring. Estranged from his mother, Xavier tries to  steer the care of his father, who is in a nursing home and quickly deteriorating from dementia.

John Vercher takes  the reader to tragic and unexpected places in “After the Lights Go Out” (Soho Press, 2022) by living in this character who is so sapped by physical, emotional and intergenerational trauma. 

The child of a mixed marriage, Xavier lives in his father’s house while he tries to prepare it for sale. His father is white and the house is in a predominantly white neighborhood. His nasty, racist neighbor is awful to him every time he steps foot outside the house and, in one particularly tense episode, calls the cops on him.  

Vercher himself is bi-racial, but had a childhood very different from his protagonist. “My dad is Black and my mom is white. We talked about this stuff, we talked about race, at a very young age and all the way through adulthood,” Vercher said. 

Xavier isn’t so lucky. His parents didn’t have those kinds of open, sometimes difficult conversations with him, which has left him ill-equipped to navigate his fraught relationship with his father. Readers learn that so much was left unsaid in that household. 

“I’ve come upon some mixed race relationships where I heard white folks in the relationship say some stuff that was just not okay. I had this idea in my head and I wanted to create this character,” said Vercher. 

Vercher’s debut novel, “Three-Fifths” (Agora Books, 2019), also has a young mixed-race man at its center who is at a moment of reckoning with his own biracial identity. That thriller set in 1995, is set in Pittsburgh, a city that Vercher knows well after getting his undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh. In his second novel,Vercher again mines that territory, but very differently. Xavier is a more mature character and the stakes are even higher for him. 

Xavier’s dad has started abusing the staff at his nursing home with racist language. Vercher worked in health care as a physical therapist before he was able to work full-time as a writer. His wife still works in a skilled nursing area and they have both heard and seen patients unleash racist abuse on some of their caregivers. 

“A lot of the folks that work as LPNs and aides are people of color and they sometimes have the most awful sh–t said to them,” Vercher said. 

“I wanted to explore this idea of someone who had seen themselves as an ally — because they were in a mixed race relationship. They never thought they held any racist ideas, but when the filters came off, it exposed some things about who they might truly have been,” Vercher said. 

Xavier’s pain and confusion in seeing the terrible things his father is capable of is excruciating for both Xavier and the reader. Xavier loves his dad. In fact, he idolized his dad and his father’s racism just tears at the very core of the young man. 

As though Xavier doesn’t have enough difficulty, he is himself struggling with serious cognitive issues after years of taking blows to the head while fighting. The parallels between cognitive decline of both men is heartbreaking and Vercher’s writing brings CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) to life in the details. Xavier sets alarms on his phone for everything, even the most quotidian of tasks, like feeding the dog or making a phone call. He makes and remakes grocery lists. He shops for groceries and while driving home forgets that they’re in the car. He makes another grocery list. 

“With as much research as there is now, it’s still so fairly poorly understood. There’s such a wide gamut of symptoms. It’s so unpredictable how it’s going to behave. I researched the  science, but I also read so many stories of the athletes that have suffered from it or have paid the ultimate price,” Vercher said. 

He knows a little bit about getting in a ring. A self-described student of mixed-martial arts, Vercher has taken a few punches. His experience training in MMA and boxing gyms gave him a road into this story. The training provides some of the lightest moments in the book because Xavier is happiest when he’s training. When he has to push through a run and when he gets in the ring with his cousin, Shot, a former boxer who manages him — those are the times when Xavier feels right. And the relationship between Shot and Xavier is one of the most poignant in the book. 

Vercher likes to live with his characters. He thinks about all the choices they’ve made, all the things that have happened, and their possible off-ramps in the story. Eventually, though, the story just takes him where it takes him. 

“I’ll sit and dwell on that for a while — thinking about all the ways it could have gone but didn’t. And why didn’t it,” Vercher said. 

“After the Lights Go Out” will be released on June 7th. John Vercher will read at Riverstone Books in the North Hills at 7:30 on June 9th.