Book review: “The Squared Circle”

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The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling, by David Shoemaker, aka “The Masked Man”. New York: Gotham Books/Penguin. 386pp, ill.

David Shoemaker’s The Squared Circle is only the latest entry into a literary market already well-saturated with books about professional wrestling. Most of these books have been hagiographical scribblings by ghostwriters, passing themselves off as memoir; these books are useful, given their access to the subject at hand, but they often fail to pass muster in terms of actual readability. Others have been written by outsiders, by fans and nominal wrestling “journalists”, some of whom are legit, while others are hacks who lucked into a small-press book deal.

Shoemaker’s book, however, is something of an anomaly within the genre—a full-length, hardcover book about wrestling published by a major imprint (or, at least, a subsidiary thereof) and handled with the sort of care that makes clear that, however bizarre and ridiculous pro-wrestling can be, the author retains real passion for a business that, frankly, makes no sense to the average person. In entertainment terms, pro-wrestling may be the ultimate niche market.

“This is a book about dead wrestlers,” he writes in the introduction, as if he’s offering the reader a spoiler alert for a pre-taped wrestling show that you personally attended. That is, there is no way to tell the story of professional wrestling over the past 30 years with any kind of historical accuracy without directly addressing the unprecedented wave of premature death that has befallen the business in that time, starting with that of David Von Erich in February 1984 and culminating with what the wrestling media now euphemizes as the “Benoit Family Tragedy” in June 2007.

Writing as “The Masked Man”, Shoemaker has done some of the most interesting writing about pro-wrestling in recent years, working mostly for Grantland and Deadspin. This book is not an anthology of that material; it’s rather takes a fresh look at a subject that has already been covered extensively from almost every conceivable angle. The fact that he manages to consistently generate new original insights speaks to his skill as a writer and, more important, his almost-intuitive grasp of what makes the business click. Shoemaker is at his best when explaining why certain characters resonated with fans as well as they did, breaking down their inner motivations and our own subconscious affinity with their message. Basically, he writes like someone who actually respects pro-wrestling; imagine that!

To say that The Squared Circle is a page-turner would be a gross understatement. Making the point more finely, it’s one of the more interesting wrestling books ever written by a non-wrestler. It has a good bit of new material that even seasoned fans will be unfamiliar with, but much of the stories spin around plots well-ingrained in the memories of casual fans from the ‘80s and ‘90s boom periods. Even so, Shoemaker renders all his information in a peppy, easy-to-digest style that, in itself, offers an object lesson in how the wrestling business has managed to achieve a new level of mainstream appeal that, while not as lucrative as in previous eras, is far more pervasive in the long-term, as well as the tragic price that so many stars paid for their success.

November 27, 2013

sheltonhull@gmail.com

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