William Giraldi was enticed by the fraternity of the gym as a way of filling out and firming up both his body and his sense of self.
The Hero’s Body by William Giraldi. W.W. Norton, 288 pages, $25.95.
By Matt Hanson
In The Hero’s Body, his engaging and highly readable memoir, the novelist and critic William Giraldi examines his male-dominated youth in the absurdly named small town of Manville, New Jersey and the unspoken but omnipresent codes of masculinity that contributed to his father’s sudden death, at age forty-seven, in a motorcycle accident.
Giraldi was the oldest son of his father’s generation of tough, working-class Italian immigrants. The Hero’s Body explores his youthful passion for competitive bodybuilding. A sickly, introverted, and bookish young man, Giraldi was enticed by the fraternity of the gym as a way of filling out and firming up both his body and his sense of self.
As he puts it: “Buried somewhere in War and Peace is an image I’ve never forgotten: our body as a machine for living. What I sought then was a machine much better than the malfunctioning one I had, hoping that it would make life’s certain disturbances more endurable … And ‘machine’ is the ideal term, because the grotesque men I studied in magazines and aspired to join looked like mash-ups of the mechanical and the human.”
His tone is earnest and mostly unapologetic about the kind of vein-popping exertions he gladly submitted himself to, including a grueling diet consisting of mountains of protein and obsessively eyeing the carved definition of his lats, pecs, calves, and abs. Giraldi is older and wiser now, and openly admits some of the absurdities of bodybuilding culture, but he asks the reader to take the age-old issues of masculinity and body image seriously, sometimes a little too much.
Bodybuilding is described in terms of a Catholic-like rite of self-inflicted physical pain in the quest for exaltation and grace: “We wanted to be totems, objects of veneration and warning, of the extraordinary and the occult.” The reader is consistently, at times rather defensively, informed that the hours Giraldi and his pals spent working out at the gym weren’t inspired by the mere urge for macho showmanship. The argument is convincing — up to a point. No matter how high-minded the conscious motivation, there’s a considerable difference between the longing for grace and the coveting of killer abs. And all the steroids Giraldi records gladly ingesting don’t help his case for Catholic flagellation as a means towards transcendence.
After a number of years pass, Giraldi perceptively diagnoses the political/cultural forces that provided a backdrop for his life in the gym: “the early 90’s was part of a grander cultural trend that had jumped to life a decade earlier when the American political mood took a hard-right turn. Cartoonish musclemen, typified by Schwarzenegger and Stallone, arrived to supplant the ‘girlie-men’ of the 70’s, to redeem us from the humiliating failures of Vietnam and the emasculating victories of feminism.”
As the 2016 Presidential election grinds to a dank halt, how sad it is to see that these ugly, unappeasable images of masculinity are still very much in our culture; if anything, now they’re been blown up to even more grotesque proportions.
All that time in the gym clearly wasn’t just about becoming buff for buff’s sake; there are Freudian undertones beneath the strenuous exertion. “Many sons inhabit a contradictory space in relation to their fathers; they emulate in order to earn acceptance while rebelling in order to earn their own identities. I took up bodybuilding in part because I must have sensed that it was something at which I could outshine my father.” This is perceptive, if not surprising, as far as generational motivations are concerned, particularly in the eternal tension between fathers and sons that has inspired many a literary epic.
The taciturn presence of the author’s father, William Giraldi III, looms large. He is the prototype of the old-school masculine ideal: stoic, hardworking, a carpenter by trade, in control but quietly overwhelmed by the vacuum left by an absconded wife (Giraldi is unexpectedly evasive about the enigma of his absent mother) and the pressures of keeping a bustling house in order. After sweating out several decades of hard work just to make ends meet, the elder Giraldi becomes enamored with motorcycles, the faster and more dangerous the better. The need for speed, the release and exhilaration if offers, eventually and suddenly leads the poor man to his doom on a treacherous back road in Pennsylvania.
The narrative then turns into an extended meditation on familial loss and how Giraldi reconciles himself to his father’s suicidal indulgence doing what made him feel the most alive. His reaction to the traumatic death is courageously free of cliché: “the popular nonsense that says, everything happens for a reason. To those who uttered that to me, I wanted to reply, Yes, and the reason is pointlessness and pain.” Bravo for admitting that, especially while likely being in need of some reassuring pabulum at the time.
In his grief, the son turned to literature as something more than just a source of pleasure and education; he found a way to put himself back together through creative writing. His search for wisdom in the written word has reaped dividends: The Hero’s Body is studded with pithy epigrams from the likes of Auden, Larkin, Milton, and Yeats. The description of Giraldi’s budding dedication to writing — rather than only reading — is compelling but only hints at something larger; the reader is left wanting more.
A memoir can be quite effective when it fishes in old wounds, to use Ted Roethke’s phrase, but, after following Giraldi’s close and irritated reading of the “twelve tedious pages” of the coroner’s report explaining the details of his father’s death, and then his extended pondering over the culture of daredevil cycling, I yearned for him to get back to the literary stuff. Inspiration is contagious, and the book needed more on how creative writing saved him. At one point, Giraldi makes the grand claim that “I didn’t choose literature any more than I chose my lineage. Literature, rather, chose me.” That’s a bold statement, given its flickers of prophetic agency, and needed more explication. Exactly how and perhaps why that sense of mission came along would be an interesting memoir in itself.
It’s easy to feel Giraldi’s devoted passion for the books he’s loved throughout a turbulent emotional life. In truth, his search for meaning through words is more interesting than the catalogues of his exhausting workout regimen or even the lucid descriptions of the shock of grief. The bodybuilding and the family tragedy narratives are well explained and moving, but the missing piece that would complete the memoir is an explanation of how the books in Giraldi’s life (many of which he’s perpetually citing and praising) transformed him. The Hero’s Body has quite a story to tell — but we need to learn more about the ghost in the machine.
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.