Tuesday, February 17, 2009

My Heroes Haven’t Always Been Wrestlers

I learned to love good country music (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson) from my dad, I learned to love good bad country music (Tim McGraw, David Allan Coe) on my own, and I filled in much of the space in-between listening to country with Katie. Katie loved Randy Travis and Dolly Parton, could do without Tracy Byrd, had a soft spot for Trace Adkins. The first time I visited her site in Rangpur, we walked from the bus depot to her home and got to talking about our favorite concerts. Katie’s favorite was a Garth Brooks show she’d seen in college: you couldn’t miss that he loved making his fans happy. I remember she said that his last of four encores was an acoustic set of Billy Joel covers. I thought then, and still do now, that Garth Brooks, even with his over-sized belt buckles and ten-gallon hats, never quite looked the part. One common aw-shucks moment among Peace Corps volunteers is how you meet people from other parts of the U.S.—and are therein introduced to tastes—you’d never otherwise encounter on your own and, well, there weren’t too many Garth Brooks fans in Evanston.

Cait and I love this Toby Keith and Willie Nelson duet, “Beer For My Horses,” a post-9/11 pre-Global-War-on-Terror anthem for vigilante justice. All last year, I liked to think of it as a good Obama campaign song (“We’ll raise up our glasses against evil forces”), and listening to it successive times, I appreciated the sheer kitsch factor, the naivete and us-them bravado that’s just nowhere on the national radar these days. I first played it for Cait while driving across Utah late one night last summer. We were both tired, so I made this playlist of up-tempo, catchy country songs. I remember how we couldn’t stop listening to Keith’s songs, and how I had to admit to myself that some of them were pretty good for their awfulness. Country music values intense self-awareness in a way that’s very attractive to poets, and few recording artists are as willing to poke fun at themselves as cleverly and frequently as Keith does: check out the Poe-inspired ending to his video for “A Little Too Late,” his other Willie duet, “I’ll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again,” or the just very excellent chorus of “As Good As I Once Was.”

George Saunders gave a craft talk at Stanford a couple of weeks ago, where he said that one of the important decisions he made early on was to make peace with the things he liked least about his writing—that, rather than trying to get them out of his writing, he embraced them as something that made his writing distinct.  For me, distinguishing "draft" level work from "finished" work involves a lot of intuition and trusting that what I've written works on the page, even when I don't fully understand what I'm doing.  Just as, on a personal level, gut-level decisions seems to involve less "fire in the belly" and more guessing well and then backing up the guess, to see how far you can follow it.  Of course, it helps to touch base along the way with good people who get what you're trying to get at.  The Chicago doc calls this having "good mirrors" in daily life.  During the first season of Dr. Katz, Ray Romano did this bit about talking to his wife after waking up from a long night of intense dreams.  Did we have chicken for dinner last night?  Okay, that happened.  And did the boogey-man capture me afterwards and force me to drive his spaceship?  Okay, that was the dream.   

I continue to receive no reply to my essay query to The Believer, in which I propose writing a literary survey of professional wrestling biographies. My general argument is that professional wrestling is the only form of entertainment where the audience knows it’s watching a staged event but interacts with the performance as though it’s real (you might say that Vince McMahon is our contemporary Brecht). In my initial, informal research two examples really drive this point home: 1. in 1990, when the character Sergeant Slaughter turned “heel” (bad guy) to join The Iron Sheik as an anti-American tag-team, the WWF had to cancel a series of events near military bases in the south because of death threats sent by snipers who promised to be waiting rooftop for Slaughter as he passed by; and 2. in 1997, when Hulk Hogan dramatically turned heel as “Hollywood Hulk Hogan”, the crowd became so outraged that it threw everything it could into the ring and one fan jumped over the security rail and ran full-tilt into the ring and at Hogan leaving a perplexed fellow wrestler, the 7-foot-tall Kevin Nash, to pick up and hold off the ground and in the air said flailing fan. None of the wrestlers could safely leave the ring until a huge security escort could arrive to the arena and escort them out. Meanwhile, for seven minutes, Hogan ran from turnbuckle to turnbuckle taunting the crowd on, laughing and screaming at them—even under threat to his well-being, he figured the only thing worse than getting hurt by some flying projectile would be breaking character and ruining the plot line.

The problem with country-and-western music comes, like any art form, I guess, when it take itself too seriously. Songwriters become cowboys in trucks that are tanks while jilted lovers howl like shot dogs, and the next thing you know someone is singing Lee Greenwood at karaoke night. The cowboy is made vulnerable by exposure, habitation, and desensitization. Corruption or decrepitude is inevitable, as is a successor. Professional wrestlers blow out knees, bash in heads, age, fall apart, forget themselves—no one stays a heel or hero too long—yet, invariably, they break storyline to wrestle another day. Redemption is the order of the day. Hollywood Hogan wrestled the next decade to great villainy and vitriol, but in the end, the Hulkster dug out his yellow-and-red tights in truly dramatic fashion: in the end, who wouldn’t rather be loved?

I’m surprised, encouraged, pleased by the easygoing nature of most of the writers I met last week at the AWP conference in Chicago. While there is certainly no lack of mousse-pointed hipsters sporting Dickies or Juicy Couture, talking about modes of discourse, the slipperiness of contingent being, and George Herbert, many other writerly folks just as eagerly chatted about movies, sports, travel, beer, etc., in other words, played against the expectations you fix in your mind when you think, “writer.” One fun night found us up in Lakeview, at Carol’s Pub, Chicago’s original honky tonk, taping dollar bills on the duct tape next to the bar, requesting “Pancho and Lefty,” which I’ve heard at Carol’s six of the last eight New Years. As I said my goodbyes, it was snowing outside and everything was really still, so I turned on Garth Brooks on the iPod and walked a while down Clark, then Southport, past the Music Box Theater, where “The Wrestler” was playing, to Belmont, where I hired a cab to take me back to my brother’s house for the night.


ML Gibby said...


Have you seen the National Geographic article about Bolivian female wrestlers? Moms by day, rabid luchadoras by night? Apparently, this wrestling thing is totally cross-cultural.


(PS: I'm with you on "Beer For My Horses." It's often our morning anthem around our house.)

Marcus said...


Sorry for taking a few days to catch up with this post. Your hyperlinks are truly an art form!

I hope the Believer gets back to you. You should check out Mick Foley's writing for Slate if you haven't already--he's a pretty smart wrestler.

I was amazed, but not surprised, to learn about those death threats against Sergeant Slaughter in the early 90s. Certainly a worthy topic for an essay, because millions of Americans enjoy wrestling.

In the immortal words of the Road Warriors, people like to (vicariously) "snack on danger and dine on death."