Thursday, May 31, 2012

Atlas Pumped – Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder

When I was a young lad reading my Superman and Batman comic books, I was always fascinated by an ad that appeared in every issue. It featured a skinny young guy (not unlike myself) sitting on the beach with his fetching girlfriend and having sand kicked in his face by some jock who was built like an express train. Of course, the lean kid was humiliated, and the girl ran off with the beefcake. This was the selling point for Charles Atlas, a popular bodybuilder who could turn your beanpole frame into a brickhouse and you'd never have to have sand kicked in your face again.

The very idea of crushing bullies with a quickly acquired set of brutal biceps had a certain appeal (especially for a guy who for years to follow would have to grow used to losing girlfriends to intimidating guys with Ferrari's), but it wasn't alluring enough for me to send away for barbells and catch what Samuel Wilson Fussell, in his autobiographical expose Muscle, calls "the disease." The "disease" he describes is the obsession with transforming yourself into the fearsome giant you once dreaded. In Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder (William Morrow, 1992), Fussell takes us pretty far into the secret world of the sissy who hides inside his hulking flesh. "The beauty of it all," he confesses, "lay in the probable fact that I would never be called upon to actually use these muscles. I could remain a coward and no one would know." What makes Muscle such a compelling read is that Fussell brings a frighteningly precise awareness of what he did to himself and why.

At times, delving into Muscle is like plunging into a memoir of a drug addict who finds compelling ways to describe what he finds so pleasurable about the addiction even though he knows that he's killing himself. "If it meant feeling safe and protected, I was willing to give up life pre-iron no longer existed for me. It happened to someone else, someone smaller, frailer, less substantial than this new-and-improved packaged version." Fussell's addiction to bodybuilding began in 1985 while living in New York City. Having just graduated from Oxford, the son of very literate parents – his father was historian Paul Fussell (who just died last week) – he was plagued by illness. At six-foot-four and 170 pounds, he found himself "looking cadaverous," and discovered that the cause of the sickness was the violence in the city.

One day while escaping one of New York's more unstable citizens (who just happened to be chasing him with a crowbar), Fussell fled into a bookstore, and found himself face to face with the book, Arnold: Education of a Bodybuilder. The image of a robust Arnold Schwarzenegger, the John the Baptist of the barbell set, sealed Fussell's fate. For four years he built himself up to 257 pounds, and competed in three bodybuilding contests until he woke up to the horror that he'd transformed himself into a caricature of manhood. "The physical palisades and escarpments of my own body," he writes, "served as a rock boundary that permitted no passage, no hint of a deeper self – a self I couldn't bear."

Ultimately, his desire for muscles melted away and he gave up bodybuilding to become a writer. In Muscle, Fussell takes us beyond the narcissism of the body image into the self-hatred that lays beneath it. It's a riveting journey through a subculture he describes compellingly as "part puritan, and part P.T. Barnum," with characters called Sweetpea, Mousie, Nimrod, and Vinnie going through the purifying rituals of pumping iron, developing attitude, and walking with a swagger. It's about steroid use, the vitamins and proteins that need to be ingested daily. It's about the nascent fascism of men seeking "perfect" bodies while sporting T-shirts that say "Don't growl if you can bite" and "I'd rather be killing communists in Central America."

One of the more revealing aspects of Fussell's memoir is how the author arrives at the source of his pathology. While the bodybuilder thinks he is intimidating the world, he's really insulating himself from a world he finds terrifying. In the highly absorbing Muscle, Fussell demonstrates that the bully on the beach was a coward all along.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.      

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