William Giraldi’s The Hero’s Body

Tucked away in a nondescript building, in an industrial park in East Rutherford, New Jersey, there is a gym famous the world over for transforming fledgling high school and college athletes into muscled monsters: hard-hitting batters or high-flying basketball players, and, most particularly, well-rounded football players able to dominate the NFL’s vaunted “combine” test, the gold standard for assessing potential professional talent. The combine involves a 40-yard dash, a maximum-rep bench press (at a weight of 225lbs), a vertical jump test, and various timed agility drills, so those aspiring to do well in the test must master a number of disciplines. Joe DeFranco, the owner of the aforementioned gym, has made a living preparing men and women for these tests, and his methods – though no doubt intelligently thought out – involve an incredible amount of grit and hard work. A training montage, released nearly ten years ago, shows men draping large metal chains over their bodies, to increase the resistance on certain exercises, and sniffing ammonia (“nose tork”) between heavy sets. To the average, well-adjusted person, this all probably seems insane, an exercise in masochism, but I admire these men without reservation – for their dedication, their perseverance, their single-minded pursuit of a goal they’ve deemed worthy of their blood and sweat. I thought of DeFranco and his athletes while reading William Giraldi’s memoir, The Hero’s Body, for Giraldi is also a New Jersey native, and likewise spent his youth lifting heavy weights and disciplining his mind and body in the pursuit of athletic excellence.

Giraldi, now a novelist and respected literary critic, was once a muscled bodybuilder, a teenage goliath who discovered the catharsis of weight lifting after a bout with meningitis and an unhappy breakup, and whose dedication took him all the way to the competitive stage, where he posed before an audience with only a bikini bottom and spray-on tan to hide his nakedness. There are perhaps no two pursuits more unalike than weight lifting and literature – the perfection of the body against the perfection of the soul – but that did not stop young William from devoting himself utterly to both, and that elusive combination allows him to do what so few writers (only Oliver Sacks, himself a champion weightlifter, springs to mind) have even attempted: to capture the psychological and spiritual appeal of lifting heavy weights. Few give the bodybuilder his due of dignity, or see in him anything other than a mindless brute. Giraldi knows better:

Unholy monks of muscle, these men possess the brand of focus that has allowed ascetics to float free of their bodies, except that their focus necessitates a further filling of their bodies. Bodies forged into outrageous artwork, 3-D anatomical charts startling enough to spook Andreas Vesalius, the father of anatomy. Part athlete, part artist, they have the training habits of the hell-bent. Muscle tissue is their clay, their choreography. Triumphant Greco warriors whose no-pain-no-gain credo is Christic to its core: you must rove through hell to reach your heaven. Every professional bodybuilder becomes a nutritionist and chemist, a ritualist and rebel. Masters of nature, they achieve their own apotheosis. To exist in that world of extremity is to leave the rest of us behind almost completely.

Perhaps the only dishonest word in this paragraph is that final “us,” Giraldi’s unconscious attempt at modesty, for as a teenager, eschewing fast food and alcohol for spinach, chicken breast and broccoli, eaten at regular intervals, he was very much among the extreme, and as he will gradually articulate, leaving the rest of us behind was very much the point.

The memoir’s climax, foretold to us in the preface, is the premature death of his father in a motorcycle accident; he had been travelling at more than 100 miles per hour on a country road with a speed limit less than half that, on a bike designed not for highways or city roads, but for maximum track performance. For his father, this was a Sunday ritual, inculcated in him by his own father, William’s grandfather: get together with a group of fellow enthusiasts, break every traffic law in existence, and evade any policemen naive enough to believe their cruisers could keep up with these superbikes in a chase. Once again, the casual onlooker sees only insanity. Giraldi quotes from Milan Kundera to offer an insight into his father’s behaviour:

The man hunched over his motorcycle can focus only on the present instant of his flight: he is caught in a fragment of time cut off from both the past and the future; he is wrenched from the continuity of time; he is outside time; in other words, he is in a state of ecstasy; in that state he is unaware of his age, his wife, his children, his worries, and so he has no fear, because the source of fear is in the future, and a person freed of the future has nothing to fear.

The mechanic charged with evaluating his father’s bike, to determine whether or not some mechanical failure might have been responsible, tells Giraldi that he should be proud of his father, that his deceased dad was a worthy rider; he could tell, you see, by the wear on the tires, that he took corners at high speed, creating acute angles with his bike and the pavement beneath it. Because we learn that Giraldi’s father is fated to die violently, in his early 40s, before we learn anything else about him, we read each chapter with the question of his death in mind. We learn, for example, that his wife leaves him shortly after the birth of their third child, abandoning both him and their children; that he works as a carpenter to support his children, and is forever behind on bill payments to keep them clothed, fed and well educated. He is, in other words, a noble figure – a hero, even – who adopted an awesome amount of responsibility at a young age, and rose to meet the challenges of life.

Critics have described this book as a meditation on masculinity, but unlike so much contemporary commentary on men, this book is not an indictment, still less a sermon. If there is a link between Giraldi’s father’s code of masculinity – his stoicism, his admiration of accomplishment and limit-testing – and his violent death, there is likewise some connection between these attitudes and his selfless fulfilment of his fatherly duties. And though William Giraldi no longer lifts heavy weights or adheres to a strict, high-protein diet, his literary life is surely also marked by extremism. His personal library, for example, exceeds 4,000 volumes, and you need only read his criticism – or take note of the wide range of his references – to understand that he has not only read but assimilated each book (he quotes Kafka, approvingly: “I am made of literature”):

The hoards of books were manifestations of the selfhood I was reaching for, a sensibility externalized, a worldview I could see and hold. They were rather like muscles in that way, embodiments of the strengthened self I wanted, at a time when I seemed always just minutes from collapse.

To strengthen yourself through literature – that is the writer’s journey, and William Giraldi – in my judgment – is among the very best literary critics alive today, and has every chance of dying as one of our greatest novelists as well, if he fulfills the potential so manifest in books like The Hero’s Body.