Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling by David Shoemaker

Why I Read It: I already knew all the players.

Summary: The common theme is early death, the repeating story of the American professional wrestler's life.

My Thoughts: I'm torn over whether or not professional wrestling needs this quality prose. But then, professional wrestling exists in two realms, real and fantasy. The fantasy side, at its best, is certainly worthy of the best words we can throw at it. When we suspend disbelief (and the author, David Shoemaker, tends to believe we've been doing that for longer than we let on) and we let the story play out, we cheer and jeer, we live the story along with the characters on stage.

At its worst, outside of the ring and backstage, the drugs flow, the steroids pump through the veins; murder has even occurred. The people we root onto victory in the fantasy world are can either match their stage personalities or be diametrically opposed to them. Heroes are villains and vice versa; we can't trust what we see in the squared circle. Sometimes, like the square peg in the round hole, the character does not always fit the wrestler.

Shoemaker's book features numerous dead wrestlers who passed before their time. Many fell around the same time, when drugs overwhelmed the sport. At that time, I was being weaned from watching it regularly, but the news still made it my way. Kerry Von Erich was dead. Really, another Von Erich, so young? Junkyard Dog was in a car accident. Andre the Giant was finally overcome by his acromegaly. They seemed to fall like flies.

Shoemaker weaves the greater themes of American history into the narrative - race, family, geopolitics etc. - and brings us to a closer look at what we saw flash before our eyes in the arenas and on TV, an extended video review of the matches we saw live. We all "knew" that a head butt from a black wrestler or a Pacific Islander was more painful than one from a white man. Why? An overhead chop from a Native American Chief (whether or not he was an Italian named Joe from New Jersey) hurt more than one from an Italian named Joe from New Jersey. Why? The author walks us through the past that made this bizarre world come into reality.

In a way, for me, the look back through time was eye-opening. In at least one instance, I can say that I was there. One chapter tells the tale of the "Macho Man" Randy Savage, pinning his winning of the WWF Intercontinental Championship from Tito Santana at the Boston Garden as a seminal moment in his career. The fans cheered that night as if Hulk Hogan had won; Macho Man was the heel, but the power of seeing a title change, of seeing the new guard take out the old, of seeing history (scripted or not) right before our eyes, was powerful enough to make us root for the dark side.

Yes, morbid curiosity drew me to this book. Although "life" appears in the title, the book is predominantly about death.

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