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When it comes to writing about professional wrestling, it’s hard to come by truly great writers of the craft. David Shoemaker is one such writer. He’s eloquent and his book “The Squared Circle” reads like a Greek play, a battle between Gods in a, well, squared circle. It’s a book that spun out of his column chronicling the deaths of wrestlers and came to encompass the history of professional wrestling.
And professional wrestling’s history is also the history of American spectator events, television, cable, PPV, and everything in between. As one example, how many great sports athletes, entertainers and other figures cite Gorgeous George, a prominent wrestler in the 1950s timed with the explosion of television, as an influence? Muhammad Ali, for one.
“The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived,” is a quote Shoemaker has from Petronius toward the start of his book and right there is the catch. That quote perfectly encapsulates the magic of art, of fiction and of entertainment. That’s the rub. When I go to the movies, I don’t want Brad Pitt winking at me that he’s an actor and all of this is fake. I want to “buy in” to the fictional presentation. When I read Stephen King, I don’t want an interlude from the author winking at me. I want to “buy in.” Professional wrestling is no different. I’m not here to convince people that professional wrestling is vastly under-credited and under-analyzed and under-respected, which it is, but it’s worth stressing the rub. And it’s just a good quote.
As Shoemaker opens the book, he gets at what’s really “fake” about professional wrestling and to which says something larger about other sports and life and idolatry, “It’s the story of a mythology populated not by gods, but by real men, fallible mortals who served as vessels for a larger truth, men who lived the lives of kings and who suffered to be our idols. This is the ultimate fakery of wrestling — that the emperor has no clothes, that the gods are mortals. But in reliving their lives, what became clear is that the mythology is what matters the most. We make our own gods for our own purposes. And we love them, and that’s the whole point.”
Right. We don’t want to know the story of Joe Montana having a concussion, not remembering where or who he is. We want to “buy in” to their godliness, their feats that seem beyond human abilities on the gridiron, in the squared circle, on the stage, wherever. Even if you’re not a wrestling fan, the idolatry that wrestling fans bestow on professional wrestlers is one other fans of other sports and entertainment products can relate to. Moreover, they can relate to watching (and anguishing) over the fall of their gods.
Which is why I think even a non-wrestling fan could enjoy this book. It’s a familiar story of the highs, lows, drugs, sex, deception and tragedy associated with the searing heat of the spotlight, the desire to maintain the spotlight and the pitfalls of an elusive spotlight.
Perhaps the worst tragedy of it all is the “ignoble existence” of a wrestler in the real world, a “painful and deadly one,” as Shoemaker says toward the end of the book. That a wrestler punishes themselves in the ring, punishes themselves going up and down the roads that transverse the world, and they do so under the bizarre suffocating blanket of wrestling’s “fakery.” Sure, the wrestling fans give them idol-status, if they’re good enough, if they punish themselves enough and even then, we always beg for that “one last match,” but beyond that niche? They’re like the gods of the sewers.
Reading this book gives you the most comprehensive, well-written expose and homage into the lives of those that lived this ignoble existence and died for it. Sacrificial lambs to the altar of their dreams.