Back Shelf Review: The Wrestler’s Cruel Study

October 4, 2010

The Wrestler’s Cruel Study

By Stephen Dobyns

Published February 17, 1995

W. W. Norton & Company

432 pp

ISBN 0-393-31212-7

Reviewed September 29, 2010

If you ever go to see a wrestling match, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re not going in with the belief that you’re going to see a serious athletic contest. Between the outlandish behavior of the participants, the vivid presentation of the ring as a stage and the exaggerated drama of the feuds that evolve between combatants, the image of the sport is geared towards providing a performance rather than any sort of resolution. It’s a long-standing conception that most professional wrestling is fake, the course of each match scripted body slam by body slam for the sake of turning up the cheers.

But is it all entertainment, or when we see two wrestlers grappling at each other are we seeing some form of Socratic dialogue? This concept is just one of many that Stephen Dobyns runs away in “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study,” a novel almost dizzying in how many genres and ideas it manages to cram between its covers. It’s almost impossible to put the title under one category: philosophy meeting pulp novel, a epic poem as enacted by volunteer theater, a book that might win and lose readers in equal measure but is like nothing else on the shelves.

Set in New York, the action is centered on Michael Marmaduke, a muscular blonde Adonis with a gentle heart – a heart unknown to the legion of wrestling fans who known him by his stage name of Marduk the Magnificent, reenacting the battles of ancient Babylon under the roof of Madison Square Garden. When his fiancee Rose White goes missing, Michael sets out to find her in a quest that leads him to get involved with a multitude of street gangs and religious cults (or some combination of the two) and grow to confront how much of himself he’d have to give up to become a real hero.

The plot presents itself as the typical hero-rescues-damsel scenario, but there is not a single thing that is typical about this novel. From the beginning scene where Rose is abducted from her apartment by two gorillas – one of whom is wearing a Walkman – it twists and turns its way through a variety of different sideplots and characters. Marmaduke finds himself traveling under the city in search of clues, battling ex-wrestlers who have so blurred the lines between their personas and themselves that they’ve nearly become animals. The detectives investigating Rose’s disappearance are the worst of partners, unable to stand the other man for a second, and yet the longer they’re partnered the more they resemble each other. A homeless man named Beetle mumbles a Greek mythology-shaded story that no one wants to listen to – when they’re not busy with their daily lives of hunting aquavit or begging or new apartments, they’re preoccupied with the whereabouts of an angel- and demon-headed golden coin.

Much as the book is full of random details, it’s also packed with various influences and homages to other styles of literature. Marmaduke’s quest has something of the air of a picaresque novel, if the roguish hero of that novel spent all his time trying very hard not to offend. The vignettes of its supporting cast make up an urban comedy in the vein of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” or Gilbert Sorrentino’s “Crystal Vision,” but it also has the exaggerated sensibilities of a comic book and the hard-broiled air of a dime-store detective novel.. Such a use of elements sounds unfocused on paper, but “Cruel Study” thrives on this mix because it never gives itself too heavily to one – whenever the book seems to slide into wackiness, a philosophical discussion adds an extra layer.

And thanks to its language, the layers of narrative manage to avoid collapsing on each other. Dobyns, who has written several books of poetry, infuses the prose of “Cruel Study” with an experimental, almost joyful spirit. Written in present tense the book’s language regularly feels as if the writer is addressing the reader directly, both leading the reader along the story’s path and regularly stopping to ask them why a character is pursuing this course of action. For example, take this view on Marmaduke’s character midway through his quest:

“For twenty-five years his life was a simple as a ball rolling down a hill. He had brains he never used, emotions he never explored. If vanilla was his favorite flavor, it was because no one had offered him tutti-frutti. One should feel sorry for those even-tempered people for whom puberty is no more than a mild merry-go-round ride. Their lives are as smooth as Nebraska. Instead of burning with a hard and gemlike flame, they simmer like a bowl of Cream of Wheat. But even to them something can happen – a child can die, a loved one can be taken away – and they change. ‘He became a different person,’ we hear people say. But has he intrinsically changed or has he dredged up something from his own unexplored potential?”

This passage also gets to the book’s central questions of duality and identity, a debate further accentuated by periodic first-person chapters ascribed to Primus Muldoon, Marmaduke’s trainer who spouts Nietzsche quotes and the philosophy of man’s “Gimmick” from underneath a mustache that would put a pushbroom to shame. Muldoon sees the persona of the wrestler – their “Gimmick” – as simply a more overstated version of the Gimmicks everyone carries in their lives, and waxes poetic on how you can peel away a man’s layers of Gimmicks like an onion. These sections are even more stylized than others, but work because they’re presented as coming from such a pompous character.

So do all these elements make “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” a good book? Well, it’s certainly a unique one – the characters mostly distance themselves from conventional fiction archetypes and the philosophies are pleasantly varied – but it’s also a book that will likely alienate as many readers as it attracts. The stylized nature of the writing might strike one reader as too florid and distracting, while another will admire the interplay of wording. And characters like Marmaduke or Muldoon, presented in such a larger-than-life manner, could be reasonably interpreted as cartoonish and narrowly defined.

But really, that seems appropriate for the kind of book “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” is – a book that centers on duality and questions of identity isn’t designed to please everyone who reads it. As much as it defies classification, it also defies a thumbs up or thumbs down rating, and one that will speak more to the personal tastes of a reader. But it is without question a book that deserves to be tasted, as colorful as an top-billed wrestling match and as varied as a Philosophy 101 reading list.

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