Each chapter of Contenders—Colorado writer Erika Krouse’s sharp, fresh debut novel of love, street fighting and deep-rooted disaffection—begins with a brief parable from martial arts lore or Asian folk traditions.

In one, a squirrel tells a bird that he knows 15 ways to escape a fox. The bird, however, knows only one way: He flies. When a fox appears, “The fox’s jaws closed on the squirrel as it was trying to decide which of the 15 things it should do. The bird had already flown away.”

Krouse’s protagonist, Nina Black, is a woman who knows one thing, and that is fighting. As a teenager in Grand Junction, Colo., she escaped an abusive father when she began to get serious training in martial arts from a gifted Vietnam veteran.

Now in her late 20s, and having left her family with no forwarding address, Nina leads an isolated existence in a run-down apartment in Denver, earning a precarious living by going to bars, approaching men she suspects are cads, and then—when they make a move on her—beating them up and stealing their wallets. “Nina thought of herself as a kind of pool shark,” Krouse writes, “except she didn’t play pool. … She was an enforcement officer, collecting small fines from men who violated the social contract.”

Nina’s secret collection of purloined wallets is nearing 100 when she beats up a steroid-fueled man named Cage—a crooked cop who was once a mixed martial arts champion. She ends up not only with his money, but also with his badge, and he responds by pursuing her in a seriously menacing way. All this happens just as her childhood crush, Isaac, turns up in Denver with the 8-year-old orphaned niece Nina never knew she had, the daughter of her dead twin brother.

Isaac is a successful actor in commercials who is as well-meaning as Nina is dangerous, and as responsible as she is unreliable. Still, love begins to grow between the three members of this off-kilter family, just as Cage threatens to destroy Nina for good.

With its tough one-woman-fighting-machine protagonist and its radical upheaval of expected gender roles, Contenders veers far from standard patterns and continually surprises the reader. Krouse’s wit, erudition and precise language make Contenders a pleasure to read even when it achieves stark darkness before—finally—lifting its head toward the light.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.


By Erika Krouse

Rare Bird

280 pages, $15.95