Professional wrestling is actually an excellent metaphor for reality television; in some ways, professional wrestling programs were the first reality shows televised. It was supposed to be completely real–the feuds and fights and title runs, personality clashes and “backstage” drama–and the wrestlers were supposedly exactly who they were before the cameras. It was until the steroid hearings of the late twentieth century that “kayfabe” (the idea that all wrestlers never give away any of the business secrets, including whether the matches were real or not, etc.) was thrown out the window and the idea of it being a sport rather than entertainment (which wouldn’t need regulating) was dead and over and history. Professional wrestlers now cross over into other areas of entertainment, like film and television; it used to be rare (although Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride remains my favorite wrestler crossover performance of all time, but John Cena in Peacemaker is a very close second and I love Dwayne Johnson in general).
To be honest, the final exposure of professional wrestling as scripted made it all the more interesting to me. After I got published, I started exploring the world of professional wrestling, with an eye to writing about it someday. I wrote a lot of wrestling porn back in the day when I first started publishing–pro wrestling has actually quite a subculture in the gay community, and it was a lot of fun. I worked with someone who was a legendary trainer a long time, who showed me a lot, and I met other guys who were pro-trained or had worked in the ring and tried to learn as much about it as I could–because it was interesting to me and I thought it would make a great setting for a gay noir novel. I’ve actually started writing that book–it’s called Muscles, because I am sure I’ve mentioned it before–primarily just for fun. I’m about four chapters in, and had to put it aside after thinking about it for years because I had other things under contract that I needed to write and get finished. I am hoping to get back to working on it once I’ve caught up on everything already contracted and maybe by the end of the summer there will be a working draft. We shall see.
So, needless to say, when I heard about Bobby Mathews’ Living the Gimmick, how could I not get a copy? A hard-boiled crime novel about professional wrestling? And it’s set in Alabama?
Sign me up, please.
Closing time, when the lights come up, the music is silenced, and the drunks go home. The tabs get paid, the regulars shuffle out the door and weave their separate ways home. Sometimes the couples come uncoupled, recoiling in near horror at who or what they were considering taking home. Brights lights and last call are the enemies of the drunken hookup. Except when they’re not.
I walked the last ones out, turned the locks closed behind them, and emptied the tip jars. Hit ‘No Sale’ on the cash register and changed singles out for twenties and tens. The cash went in my wallet. I closed out the day, and the register began spitting out its daily report on a long, narrow white spool of receipt paper. While it printed, I restocked the cooler. Two cases of Bud Light, a half a case of Miller and another case of Coors. Wipe down the bar with a mostly-clean damp rag and then pour the rest of the coffee into a thick china mug. I put it at the end of the bar and sat down to read the tape. The tensions in my shoulders eased as I read the tape. It had been a good night, for a Tuesday. Might make my nut this month. Sip dark, butter coffee and let the after-hours silence wash over my like a gentle wave.
On the surface, Living the Gimmick appears to be a very simple, point A to Point B crime story. Our point of view character is a long-time pro who has since retired and opened a bar in Birmingham, Alex Donovan. Alex never became a star; he was a journeyman who worked matches up and down the card throughout his career–but his brightest shining moments were his friendship and partnership with a Ric Flair-style superstar, Ray “Wild Child” Wilder; a consummate hard-living hard-loving star who loves his stardom, loves what he does, and as a star, kind of feels like the rules that apply to other people don’t apply to him. But Ray and Alex had good times together, looked after each other, and when he shows up at the bar one night after closing time, Alex isn’t quite sure what his old buddy wants–until he is shot in the head from behind and dies in Alex’ arms; Ray feels obligated to his old friend/partner to track down his killer.
A deceptively simple premise, right? And a pretty standard one; buddy gets killed so Main Character must avenge his death or at least bring the killer to justice. It’s kind of a tired trope, because in the hands of lesser writers it turns it typical toxic masculinity bullshit I don’t enjoy reading and usually give up on before finishing. I’ve grown to loathe toxic masculinity and I generally don’t want to read about it for pleasure. But that’s where Mathews works his magic. This isn’t just a “let me avenge my buddy” book; throughout the book there are chapters where Alex flashes back to a past experience with Ray which he thinks about, reflects on, and now, as a more mature and settled-down kind of guy, sees through a slightly more jaundiced eye. And the more people he talks to as he follows clue after clue, he also begins to see Ray–whom he kind of hero-worshiped, back in the day–in a different, more mature light; Alex grew up but Ray never really did.
Mathews also brings these characters to vivid life as he shows us behind the curtain into the world of pro wrestling, as well as some good history of how the business has changed and evolved since the WWF explosion under Vince McMahon. You can smell the locker rooms, see the sweat glistening on their bodies, hear the dull rumble of the crowd. It’s a sentimental novel that never descends into cheap sentimentality; it’s honest and open and real.
My only complaint is that the book was short. I could have easily spent another hundred pages in that world. Check it out, peeps–you won’t be sorry.