We weren't new to violence. Our families were scattered; our community was rural and poor. Violence was solution, problem, consequence. It was Nate Murphy slamming you into the shit-green lockers as you walked down the hallway minding your own business, or your father exploding into the shower to smack you because you took the Lord’s name in vain while getting ready for school. Sometimes it was quieter: coming home to find your mother sitting slumped at the bottom of the old, wooden basement stairs with a pill bottle still in her hand, the empty fifth of vodka rolling on the concrete floor, somehow unbroken.
We were used to all those kinds of violence. But we were new to the kind that was controlled, contained. We’d never encountered anything like this.
“I want you to hit me as hard as you can,” said the man in the movie.
After our first time watching Fight Club, me and my buddy Sean didn't even speak. We just hung out in the bathroom, then snuck right back into the theater. Soon all the rest of my friends had seen it, too. It was 1999 and we were 15 and 16 in backwoods Massachusetts, bumming rides from each other or older kids down from the hills to the Hampshire Mall or over to Leominster. We were the right age, the right amount of troubled, and most of all the right amount of stupid for this movie. Just when we were ready for Fight Club, we got it.
Fight Club, which was David Fincher’s adaptation of a 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk, is a certain kind of teen boy's dream. The unnamed narrator (Edward Norton) is a bored man, who meets another man named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), his vibrant opposite and Manic Pixie Dream Bro for the ages. Durden becomes his cool best friend and teaches him how to interact with (i.e., punch) other men through the titular fight club. They also fight over a woman named Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) who is weird and reckless and hot, although the true romance of the film is really between the two men. Then (surprise!) we find out that they are actually the same man, proving that Ed Norton had the power inside him to be cool all along. Now, instead of friendship, he has respect and power. Looked up to as a leader by men all across the land, he successfully brings down the credit card industry, reverting all debt to $0, and wins the girl (who seems fine with how crazy and destructive he’s been, because plot device).
For me and my friends, the movie had everything: sex, death, nihilism, friendship, a warped view of love. The central tenet of Fight Club was not talking about stuff, which is very important to boys who like to pretend they don't have feelings. It looked cool and the people in it were cool in the exact ways each one of us wanted to be cool. It broke the fourth wall, even though, rubes that we were, we barely had a clue what the fourth wall was. And prior to Fight Club, had any of us known about this amazing band the Pixies? No, we had not.
“The things you own end up owning you,” the movie told us, which we loved because we didn’t own shit.
Most of all, the movie espoused a beautifully half-baked Nietzschean philosophy about destroying society just for the fuck of it that resonated because we, like so many young men do, felt unimportant and powerless. “The things you own end up owning you,” the movie told us, which we loved because we didn’t own shit.
We already knew we were not special, but Fight Club transformed our very lack of specialness into something special. “Listen up, maggots,” Durden says into a literal megaphone in the movie. “You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else.” When you're young, these things affect you. When you're poor, even more so. “You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.”
Only a few of us had cars, and none of us had money, but it didn’t matter. Fight Club told us that what we did have — our bodies, our anger, our clear-eyed belief that so much of the world was shit and farcical and irrelevant — was all that we needed.
I don't remember whose idea it was to start our own fight club. All I know is we tried it for the first time at Connor’s house, where we did everything worth doing.
Connor’s house was like all our houses, but worse. We lived in the middle of nowhere, but Connor's house was straight-up in the woods. Our houses were heated with wood stoves and riddled with holes, which bugs crawled through, but Connor’s had only just gotten running water. He basically lived in a treehouse from an Ewok village, if you squinted your eyes and ignored the cars rotting in the front yard.
My friendship with Connor was one of those friendships that you know is going to be special from the moment you meet the other person, even if the actual specialness doesn’t come right away. For a while, it’s just both of you standing around waiting to be the true friends you’re meant to be, until there’s that moment of connection that changes everything. In our case we were in seventh grade, hating life, trying to get through a shitty school field trip at a museum, and somehow ended up bonding over our fathers. Mine was absent and angry, his dead. From then on, more or less, we were best friends.
A lot of us had parents who were never around, but Connor’s mom was better than absent: She just didn't care, in the best way possible. She’d come right home from her part-time job, have a few drinks, and go to bed early. Her brand of not-caring felt like a blessing; she really, truly did love us, and we understood each other, and she left us the hell alone.
It’s strange to call Connor’s house a safe place, given all the dumb and dangerous shit we did there, but it was — a house where nothing was chasing us, where the only trouble was the trouble we made ourselves. There was always food in the fridge and DVDs to watch and you never got hit in the bad way, the unfair way, where it was just adults unleashing their frustration on you. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t hit each other.
We liked hurting ourselves. In middle school Connor and I fought no-holds-barred BB gun battles, our heads filled with Platoon and Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. We painted our faces with mud and loaded up our army surplus store backpacks with bottle rockets and Roman candles and anything that could be set on fire. One evening, when the rain got too hard, we brought the fight inside. Pinned down by heavy fire from Connor, I was stuck hiding in the bathtub until I came up with a brilliant new weapon: a homemade flamethrower composed of my cigarette lighter and his mom’s Aqua Net. The bathroom wall caught fire, and we had to douse the blaze with water from the toilet.
We were terrible and we were bored, both qualities compounding each other.
The war games quickly gave way to Jackass-style stupidity: throwing ourselves into ravines, riding a busted baby carriage down the hill behind the house, hot-boxing the junked cars in Connor's front yard and jumping off his high, stilted front porch “just because.” We were terrible and we were bored, both qualities compounding each other.
The leap from shooting each other with BB guns to punching each other in the face was not that big. It started with one-hits; we'd square up against each other and go blow for blow. First one to fall or call quits lost. But more often than not it would break out into an actual fight, so eventually we just said fuck it, let's do it like they did it in Fight Club. Usually we didn’t plan in advance — there were no cell phones, no emailing. Boys just showed up at Connor’s house like it was teenage dirtbag Neverland.
So many of these fights blur together, but I’ll never forget my first. It was with one of the Mikes. There were a lot of guys named Mike; this particular Mike was funny and kind, liked to climb trees shirtless while yelling at the sky, high and drunk and pulling down wood for our bonfires with his bare hands. In the house upstairs, Connor's mother was asleep. There weren’t many people over. With a few beers in each of us, we stood shoulder to shoulder in the kitchen, of all places.
Mike swung first. His fist hit my mouth and my first thought was Fuck, no way my folks can afford the dentist, no way we could replace the already fake tooth from when it got knocked out in the fourth grade during a real fight over a basketball. My head snapped back and then came right up as my fists started flailing. It was more stun than pain; the pain came later. As we fought, my fists bounced against Mike's hard, sinewy body, while his seemed to sink into my heavier frame. For a moment I had him up against the fridge, and our boys let out the “OHHHHHH” that always felt so good to hear. Then his fist landed on the bridge of my nose and stars exploded into my vision. After that, Mike must have swept my leg or just pushed me over, because suddenly I was looking up at the ceiling of Connor's kitchen, yellow with cigarette smoke, and Mike was offering to help me up.
“Want to go again?” he said.
When there got to be too many of us, we started fighting in the quarry down the dirt road. We looked beat up a lot of the time, but what was the difference? Teachers didn't take much notice, and we wanted to treat our wounds casually, just like the movie did. None of us were really popular or unpopular in high school. Some of us did more drugs than others, and some of us played football while others got drunk underneath the bleachers, but for the most part we got along because we didn't have shit-all else to do.
Watching was almost as much fun as fighting. We’d make a circle around the fighters, shouting encouragement. The mood was bloodthirsty and cheerful; usually we were rooting for both of them. No winners or losers, just the guy who stayed up and the guy who went down.
As in the movie, most of the guys fought with their shirts off, pants slung low. But I always kept mine on. My friends knew that they were something to be looked at; they were performing when they shucked their tacky Hawaiian shirts and stood there dressed only in baggy cargo pants (another nice thing about Fight Club: Its thrift-store style was highly attainable, and boy did we take advantage).
We pretended; we postured so hard, wearing aviators we’d stolen from gas stations. But, you know, our fight club did work. We did get closer and more supportive of each other. That was real. Who knows if it was the way the actual fighting affected us, or the movie telling us we would become closer, but it happened. Connor was kind of the leader — he wasn’t the loudest and bossiest; rather, he was the most caring and thoughtful among us. Maybe it was because he had a little brother, or because he knew he had a responsibility to us. It was his tumbledown house that sheltered us all, presided over by his loving, negligent mother. Which was perfect for those of us who didn’t live there, but maybe hard on an eldest son.
The last time we fought was in Connor's living room, where one of the Mikes knocked another Mike so hard that a blood vessel in his eye burst. Immediately the white part of his eye went red, and against it his iris gleamed a shocking blue, and it was horrible and beautiful and like nothing we'd ever seen before. Eyes had been blackened and noses bloodied, but nothing like this. Someone said, “Has his pupil been knocked loose? I heard you can go blind from that.” We took one of the frozen burritos from Connor's fridge and held it to his face.
There was no big discussion; we just stopped fighting after that. More of us got our driver's licenses and girls started to show up at our parties and the only reason anyone punched anyone was because of them, because we thought they cared. They did not.
After we stopped, we heard rumors that other folks were still doing it. “Murphy’s got the key to the Rod and Gun Club by his house, and he’s hosting fights in the basement.” “Two towns over they've got one going in the parking lot behind the Star Market.” I never knew if any of the stories were true, but we all wanted to believe them because it made life feel that much more like the movie. It felt good to think that we were the people to have started it, as if we were the only juvenile delinquents in the whole world who had seen this movie and decided that fighting each other would be a good idea.
We all graduated in 2001. I'd gone to a different high school for years, thanks to a scholarship, and Connor cleaned up his act too, at least a little bit, graduating at the top of his class. He helped out on yearbook, and one of his duties was to create a flyer for graduation, to be passed out to all of the students and teachers and families, which he filled with unattributed inspirational quotes, some of which were also in the yearbook itself. Every last one of those quotes came from Fight Club. At one point in the movie, Brad Pitt tells Edward Norton, “It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.” I’m pretty sure that ended up being the class motto.
Most of the Mikes went into the armed services. So did Connor. He leads troops now, surrounded by young, violent men. He does his best to care for them, just as he did for us. But that would be years later. In 1999, we still hadn’t outgrown our yearning for the end of the world.
We’d rebuild society (but not too much of it) with a focus on community and agriculture and also definitely lower the drinking age and make cigarettes free.
On New Year’s Eve, at the very end of 1999, we were rooting for Y2K. The snow was heavy that year and me, Connor, and his little brother sat in their dilapidated house, feeding wood into his stove, passing the time talking about what we'd do if the power grids went down. Who wouldn't want a restart? We'd go out and help the elderly, and get everyone to a central location with a generator. We’d rebuild society (but not too much of it) with a focus on community and agriculture and also definitely lower the drinking age and make cigarettes free.
We still fought. Connor's little brother threw my cigarettes in the fire because he said he didn't want me to die, and so I beat him up. Not in the fight club way, but in that old way, the violence in me uncontained. When I was done I felt calm again. I stole a pack of GPCs from Connor's mom and tried to console his brother. My anger was the anger of a young man, which flares ferociously and then is wiped clean, like it never existed in the first place. Connor’s brother wouldn't talk to me except to whisper “Fuck you.”
“Think it'll all be over?” Connor had said, almost hopefully. But by the time I'd beaten up his little brother, the New Year had swept around the world and there had been no radical shift in society. We watched the ball drop in some city we'd never been to. Afterward, the programming came back to the local channel, which was based miles and miles from where we lived. We watched as a young reporter came on screen to test her ATM card. “Let's see if Y2K has struck,” she said chirpily.
Connor and I leaned forward in our seats as she put her card in, covered the keypad, and typed in her code, smiling at the camera as it zoomed in on the ATM screen. The screen flashed red. Card declined.
Connor and I stared at each other. His brother even looked at us, the beating temporarily forgiven.
For three brief 30-second commercial spots we felt like it had happened. We were getting our restart, just like Tyler Durden predicted:
“In the world I see, you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway.”
It was really happening.
“Whoops!” said the reporter, embarrassed, when the news came back on. “Sorry about that. Seems I had overdrawn my account.” She reassured the viewing audience that there had been a mistake and Y2K was bupkis and everything was still online, which we really should have figured out on our own, considering that we were still watching TV.
The world hadn’t gotten its movie ending, so there would be nothing to draw people together who did not want to be together. Gone dads would stay gone, slightly less poor kids would mock poorer kids, bad would not hit rock bottom but rather keep getting worse. There was no end to it. The year 2000 had arrived, with all of the constraints and conditions of every previous year we had seen, and we knew that the world would never end in the exact satisfying way we wished for it to end, had dreamed it would end, no matter how badly we wanted it to.
Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. He is the editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-author of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them and Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos (with Recipes). More at isaacfitzgerald.net.