Friday, June 16, 2017
Review: "The Hero's Body" by William Giraldi
Much like he did with his air tight, thrilling gut punch of a second novel Hold the Dark, author William Giradli puts his skill to great use in maybe the best way he can with The Hero’s Body, his first book of nonfiction. It is a twofold memoir about his early years as a bodybuilder and the death of his father in motor cycle accident, and how both of these pursuits, his and his fathers, are informed and controlled by an unspoken masculine code that was passed down from one generation of men to the next. There were times I was worried that at the heart of the novel there would be a brutal critique of the ways in which we perceive masculinity in our modern world, but I’m happy to say that is not the case, and not once during the book is the word “masculinity” paired with the word “toxic”. Instead the book is a more somber affair about human frailty, the bonds between a father and his son and the painful limits of the human body and the constant struggle to keep pushing those limits. And much like his first novel, there is not a wasted word or painful metaphor to be found on any page of this 265 page book. The prose is both understated and has the power of gloved fist. The book begins with a prologue of a high school aged William collapsing in one of his classes. He finds out that he has meningitis, and the disease wracks his body and afflicts him with impossible amounts of exhaustion and in one scene, he receives a spinal tap from a doctor who doesn’t know what he is doing. This illness makes him obsessed with his own body and ways to improve it. A way shows itself when he finds his uncle’s basement gym, and decides to strengthen and reshape his body into something more glorious. This is the book’s strongest overall section, with the many descriptions of dietary restrictions and the types of steroids William and others would use to gain the perfect form (there are a few wrestling references in this section, which is always a plus) being entertaining, ghoulish and as obsessive as you’d expect. It culminates in his first competition, of which he does better than he expected, but a strange scene at a local competition he and his friends attend, one that is rendered painfully and memorably, sets him on a different path. We also, in this section, get to know his obsession with reading and eventually writing, a hobby that contradicts greatly with his other hobbies. It both sets him apart and makes him more emotionally isolated. The second and longest section details his father’s death: from the funeral to the autopsy and the questions surrounding his death create a map of Giraldi’s grief, one that shows great conflict with the love he feels for his family and the culpability certain ideas had in causing his father’s death. It ends with a powerful coda that brought back memories of my dad’s early death as well as the hole such a sudden earthly departure leaves in the person. This sounds grim, but it left me feeling oddly hopeful at times, or at the very least, less alone, this emotional excavation by a stunningly talented writer is nothing short of mesmerizing.