To get a sense of how Ray Lewis writes in his expressive, tangent-filled, hyper-sincere memoir "I Feel Like Going On," it's best to get a sense of how he talks.
On Jan. 12, 2013, following the Baltimore Ravens' victory over the Denver Broncos which got the team one game closer to the Super Bowl, Lewis wandered towards an eager reporter, shaking his head hypnotically, as if he were in pain and/or about to orgasm maybe and answered the reporter's pithy questions—how did the Ravens defeat the Broncos or whatever—with a context-free quote from the Bible. Specifically, Isaiah 54:17.
"No weapon formed against me shall prosper, no weapon," Lewis howled, and then he turned around, hugged defeated Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, turned back around and continued, not exactly making sense, "No weapon, no weapon, God is amazing." Finally, he provided some boilerplate football strategy answers cogently and magnanimously, again, looking as if he was hurting and about to come at the same damn time.
In "I Feel Like Going On" (cowritten by Daniel Paisner) pain and pleasure are in conversation and often you have to wait awhile for Lewis to make sense, though usually it's worth it. A passage might pop off with a Lewis-ian non sequitur which he then slowly unravels and talks around until its meaning is clearer. Toward the end the book, a chapter about recovering from two torn biceps gets interrupted by a page-long celebration of the butterfly.
"When I had an injury, I used to call it my 'cocoon time,'" he writes. "I had this whole little science project worked up in my head. Don't ask me where it came from, this type of thinking, but I'd always been fascinated by butterflies—at first, they were just something to wonder about." Further down the page he concludes, "Really [butterflies are] the most amazing creatures, capable of doing the most amazing things, and probably the most incredible thing about them is the way they're able to transform themselves." See, he's like the butterfly. He transformed himself back into a functional football player.
There are many self-aware, Werner Herzog-ish rants like this in "I Feel Like Going On," moments where right there on the page, he's chasing some thought so he can express some ecstatic truth about himself or the human condition that might also inspire readers. And Lewis' prose (or okay, coauthor Paisner presumably turning Lewis' scrappy, epic rhetoric into prose) is pulpy and playful and obvious, often doubling or tripling down on some point (lots of italics) and then jumping to another tangent—Lewis could probably write a really good noir if he felt like.
This line, for example, about his last game is Raymond Chandler-like in the way that it is ridiculous, touching, toughminded, and sounds like a grotesque cliche even though it actually isn't one, all at once: "I kept my helmet on because I didn't want the whole world to see me crying." There are also self-effacing details throughout, such as the time he ran to his high school girlfriend's house because 1990 slow jam 'Let's Chill' by Guy was on the radio only to find her kissing another guy, or when he admits that he has no idea why the hell he nicknamed Ravens defensive back Rod Woodson, "Paco."
"I Feel Like Going On" is also subtly, an abuse memoir, one in which Lewis tries to parse his chaotic come-up thanks to the series of men that helped his family in some ways but beat the hell out of him and his mother, all the while dealing with an absentee father and devastating Deep South poverty. A chapter on connecting with his father for the first time is pastoral in its storytelling and leads to a humble riff on Lewis' own complex family situation: "So, no it's not how I pictured it—seven kids, by four different women. Not even close. But it's the picture God has taken for me, and so that's the one I've put on the mantel. . .I've started telling people I've got four kings and three queens—all living under different roofs—not my own, but we make it work, we do." It is a grimier version of Christianity than you might expect, neo-classical in its comfort with things not entirely working out.
The centerpiece of "I Feel Like Going On" is Lewis' problems with the law stemming from an altercation involving Lewis and friends outside of an Atlanta nightclub after Super Bowl XXXIV in which two men, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, were murdered. Ultimately, Lewis took a plea deal to testify against Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, who were charged (and subsequently acquitted) of the murders and settled with the victims' families.
But for Lewis, this event becomes a kind of Tolstoy-like dark night of the soul. While he's in jail, he tells us God literally spoke to him—you're mostly dealing with Ray Lewis' reality here, one where God organizes everything and everything is a test. And although his version of events is suspect, he finds a way to provide some insight into these events by focusing on how he was treated by the police and white America: A white cop told him he was going to suffer for this crime however tangentially he was tied to it (it echoes the passage in Jay-Z's "Decoded" when the rapper talks about being arrested by the so-called "hip-hop cops"); and then there's the racist, "nigger"-laden tirades he endured from sports fans that next season.
Here, Lewis walks into a discussion of racial animus in America ("you see this type of thing still going on. New York. Miami. St. Louis. Baltimore...there's no call to treat people like dogs") teasing the book's epilogue, which is entirely about the Baltimore Uprising, its pros and cons and where he thinks the city needs to go next. You can get something out of what Lewis has to say about his experience even if you don't entirely believe he is telling the truth.
If only he could reveal more of the truth though. It would be illuminating because so much of the book before this moment is Lewis confessing that he "didn't know what normal looked like" and how so much of his life was spent operating with a poorly dealt hand and expecting very little and demanding so much out of it anyway or just plain finding a way to make things work. As a kid, he quickly understood that the guy beating on him and his mom was also helping the family economically so he had to endure it and as a teen, life became a ruthless competition on the field and for some troubled friends he lost, off the field too. Details like this, if he could tie them to that fateful night, might help explain why Lewis responded the way so many of his critics say he did.
For Lewis, who prides himself on holding nothing back, his savvy on the events of Atlanta is a rare moment of restraint and that alone makes its appearance in this book, however maddening, telling about his character. He is full of it just like the rest of us, less the God of the Ravens defense than a grandiose bloviator (on the Bible, butterflies, Baltimore city racial politics) and a conduit for real talk with plenty of soul-searching to do himself.