In modern professional wrestling, the really compelling shows start with what they call a “cold open”–they skip the theme song, skip the mere formality, and get right to the meat. So let me try to do that here:
This is a book about dead wrestlers.
It was supposed to be, anyway. But along the way, it became a history of professional wrestling told through the stories of people who made the myths and who thereafter died.
These are first five sentences of David Shoemaker’s excellent book The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling. Like the melodramatic television show opening that he references, these lines hit hard like a pot of bootleg Thai coffee. It feels morbid, slightly disrespectful and very, very bold. So much so that it’s easy to forget just how true those first few words are through this tremendous read.
The subject matter, at first glance, seems morose, almost insulting. Is this just a collection of stories on the tragic manner in which these professional wrestlers left the Earth far before their time? Is this just a gross exploitation of men stricken with the disease of addiction while maintaining a facade of physical strength? The immediate reaction couldn’t be further from the truth.
Similar to his Dead Wrestler of the Week columns on Deadspin, Shoemaker builds his story through a series of chapters detailing the rise and fall of the industry’s greatest (and not so great) titans. Some of these tales are more biographical in nature, while others focus simply on certain aspects of the person’s career. Their deaths are inevitably the conclusion of every chapter, but the pages beforehand detail these wrestler’s lives with a reverence and respect not usually reserved for “fake fighters”. Shoemaker often references the “unreality” of these wrestlers, as the characters they portray often clash headlong into their everyday lives, sometimes with disastrous results. From within these fractured blurred lines between what’s real and what’s performance, The Squared Circle does an excellent job of constructing meaningful narratives behind the lives of these men and women. Shoemaker is able to distill the very spirit of these wrestlers, reconciling how they all lived with the manner in which they died. Andre the Giant’s tale is constructed under the pretenses that the legends behind the fictional character Andre Roussimoff played on-screen were echoed by the man’s real life mythology. The Big Boss Man character was a corrections officer turned wrestling superstar, a reflection of his on-screen vessel Ray Traylor who parlayed a seemingly limited set of natural gifts into an extremely lucrative career. Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit paralleled each other during their careers, but seem perpendicular to one another in their deaths.
Shoemaker uses these mini biographies to glide effortlessly from the nascent days of pro wrestling to the modern day teleplays on the USA Network. Though the book is largely compiled of chapters organized in the chronological order of wrestler deaths, it never feels as if the order was predetermined. The book flows from one chapter to another, with each man or woman’s story building upon the one before it. In a script that should feel like an ad hoc mass of information, the story feels like a single, interlocking narrative. Reading The Squared Circle was an exercise in literary grace, an apt reflection of the choreographed matches that fill its contents. It’s right there perhaps that’s the book’s most impressive feat: by unfurling the gritty details of each wrestler’s lives and eventually, deaths, Shoemaker is able to convey a comprehensive history of the industry without overtly doing so. Mixed with his casual but informed tone and detailed but not overbearing explanation of wrestling parlance, The Squared Circle is a read that can be consumed by just about anyone. While it should be extremely difficult to revolve a book around dead performers who portrayed real-life cartoon characters in what amounts to a traveling circus, Shoemaker uses his deft writing style to overcome the negative preconceptions one might have against taking him seriously.
In the professional wrestling world, nothing like this book exists. There is no autobiography, blog or novel that will comprehensively span the history of wrestling, appeal to hardcore fans and invite in the uninitiated like The Squared Circle. Never before has professional wrestling been approached with such a scholarly tone that gives such serious credibility to the subject matter, but not elevating it to the point where it’s made out to be more important than it is. It is a revelation in this genre–in fact, in this writer’s opinion, this is the genre. Much like Watchmen or Mastering the Art of French Cooking, this book will be the one that all other professional wrestling books will be judged against.
The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling is available now. Go ahead and grab one.