I know. I know. Bear with me here.
Professional wrestling is not pretty. At its worst, it is carnival schlock: shirtless men throwing each other around with all the grace of a Buffalo Wild Wings on a random Thursday—loud to the point of white noise, the scent of thrice-used canola oil & whatever it is we’ve decided testosterone smells like these days—men in football jerseys and jorts cursing the name of the name on their backs, all things bulbous & grotesque.
At its best, well, it’s still probably a Buffalo Wild Wings, but an extremely efficient one: the waitresses move with a beautiful quickness, the sauces are innovative enough, & even though it is incredibly predictable in its existence, at times it surprises you—there is one extra light beer on draft, or, you can make out a faint habanero flavor through the kick. There is comfort in knowing what you are going to get, & yet there is pleasure when things are unexpected.
The Squared Circle: Life, Death, and Professional Wrestling by David Shoemaker is a book of essays about professional wrestling. If you know anyone who loves or has loved professional wrestling at any moment in their life, you owe it to them to get them this book: it is filled with incredible insight into the business of professional wrestling, as well as loving nods to all of the madness that surrounds the spectacle. It is a book of beautiful nostalgia: odes to fallen wrestlers, who far too often turned to drugs & alcohol after their time in the limelight—beautiful observations that go well beyond the “whatever happened to?” questions brought up when someone who used to watch every Monday night starts reminiscing about their adolescence. There are asides to the tropes surrounding wrestling as well: a history of televised weddings, a list of “evil foreigners,” brought in to take on our all-American heroes. Trust me, if anyone you know loves wrestling, they’ll love this book.
But let’s be fair: there is disconnect between the concept of a “professional wrestling fan,” & one who reads essay collections & appreciates the concept of poetics.
Todd Kaneko, in the Superstition Review, has an amazing experiment where he demonstrates the unseen parallels between poetry & professional wrestling: “[________] is a real thing in the real world, despite what some of [________]’s biggest detractors might say.”
I kept this post in mind while reading Shoemaker’s book: that above all, this book is a treatise on how to approach an essay. In some semblance, Shoemaker is attempting to demonstrate the realness in something that is so absurd that it seems fake: the idea that grown men & women are entertained by fake fighting, despite knowing that everything unfolding in front of them is an artifice. All essays are attempts to categorize the unbelievable: to attempt to make sense of something so unfathomable that it has to be true—from the preposterous to the trite. In a collection of essays, the book itself is the final essay—Shoemaker acknowledges this in the introduction:
“History” is mostly quartered to the realm of wrestler reminiscence, which would be factually problematic on its own, but couple that with the industry’s desire to mythologize everything and to keep up with the façade of fakery that undergirds the sport and you end up with a lot of facts that contradict each other. What follows is my best effort to sift through them, organize them, break them down, and put them back together in something approaching truth. If all that follows isn’t true in the plainest sense of the word, it’s an honest effort at it. And at a minimum it’s a look at reality through the distorted lens of pro wrestling unreality. It’s the truth about a century of misdirection and lies.What unfolds is an experiment in truth-telling: to acknowledge the world that has been crafted, but also to try to dissect the scaffolding and to figure out what holds everything upright.
To me, the beauty in essay is acknowledging the form of the essay—the most influential essays, to me, are the ones that bring the author into the work: Search for Marvin Gardens, The Glass Essay, in an attempt to talk about the difficulty in talking about the subject. Here, Shoemaker acknowledges the artifice of professional wrestling in a way that professional wrestling does not acknowledge its own falseness, & the result is tremendously entertaining & fascinating. We might not want to know where these things come from in the same way we do not want to see the chicken wings being spun, or where all of the cable wires lead to—that there is comfort in having exactly what we have. Shoemaker lets us know that it is necessary for us to know where these stories come from: that anything with that much mystery needs to be dissected.
Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of So You Know It's Me, a series of Craigslist Missed Connections, 'Level End,' a collection of lyric essays based on videogame boss battles, & the forthcoming 'Leave Luck to Heaven,' an ode to 8-bit Nintendo Games. He is working on a series of essays about professional wrestlers.