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The Hero's Body: A Memoir


The Hero's Body: A Memoir

Bodybuilding and motorcycle road racing are two pursuits practiced by relatively small but passionate groups of men. For novelist (BUSY MONSTERS) and critic William Giraldi, they serve as the twin anchors of a memoir that’s both a coming-of-age story and a tribute to a deceased father that strives to grasp the ineffable mysteries of how values and character are passed down through generations of men.

Born in 1975 and raised in the aptly named town of Manville, New Jersey, in the heart of Bruce Springsteen country, Giraldi (the fourth in a line of “Williams”) was one of those sons who “inhabit a contradictory space in relation to their fathers; they emulate in order to earn acceptance while rebelling in order to earn their own identities.” In his case, that took the form of bodybuilding, an activity he began in his uncle Tony’s basement after recovering from viral meningitis at age 15.

“We ain’t down here to feel pretty good. We’re down here to feel pain,” his uncle admonished him, in an apt summing up of the arduous regimen he imposed on the teenager. “I needed to make my own creation myth,” Giraldi writes, “to renovate my pathetic vessel into a hero’s body,” and he devoted himself to that task with a frightening intensity. By the time he graduated from high school, his training sessions had migrated to the Physical Edge, a gym that became a sacred institution for this lapsed Catholic. He explains how his weight training there with a group of close friends evolved into eventual participation in a bodybuilding competition at the Jersey Shore. 

"Giraldi’s father was a man who 'lived and died attempting to be worthy of an ancient code.' His son has paid him great honor with this profoundly moving memoir."

His success there came at a price --- his increasing use of steroids. Giraldi explains how the side effects of those drugs, including acne, high blood pressure and frequent headaches, were all “tolerable consequences of trying to meet the Western standard of male beauty.” He describes in sometimes unpleasant detail the self-inflicted physical and emotional punishment of that contest.

But gradually this world began to lose its allure. In the midst of a long, ice storm-plagued winter, Giraldi, always an avid, if promiscuous, reader, discovered the work of Raymond Carver, who offered a “much-needed brotherhood of working-class melancholy” and inspired him to write. In this aspect, Giraldi’s memoir shares DNA with Andre Dubus III’s TOWNIE, the story of how another fine writer swapped street fighting for words. Giraldi’s own style is graceful and poetic, influenced no doubt by poets like Larkin, Yeats and Auden, whose words enrich this memoir.

In its second half, THE HERO’S BODY shifts, subtly but unmistakably, to another aspect of his family’s “unapologetic, unforgiving masculinity.” It’s the story of Giraldi’s father’s passion for motorcycle racing, a love he inherited from his own father --- the author’s “Pop” --- but didn’t succeed in passing down to his son.

Giraldi’s father was killed on May 7, 2000, while trying to negotiate a 90-degree right-hand turn at a “lunatic speed” on a rural Pennsylvania road, astride a two-wheeled version of one of Springsteen’s “suicide machines,” a Yahama R1 motorcycle, what Giraldi calls “the assault rifle of superbikes.” A skilled and hardworking carpenter, he had abandoned his weekly Sunday excursions while raising Giraldi and his two younger siblings after their wife and mother left the family when Giraldi was 10.

As he sifts through the sterile reports of the coroner and police, interviews his father’s riding companions, and visits the site of the accident and the motorcycle shop where his father’s beloved cycle ended up after smashing into a guardrail, killing its rider instantly, Giraldi enacts a morbid detective ritual. Though he never wavers in his love and respect for a man who died at age 47, engaged in a hobby noteworthy for the way it paired a “bravery indistinguishable from imprudence,” Giraldi admits his investigation will never yield more than a partial understanding of what propelled his father to an early, senseless death.

The male members of William Giraldi’s family adhered to a simple, unshakeable creed: “Celebrants of risk, they valued muscles, motorcycles, the dignified endurance of pain. Their Homeric standards of manhood divvied men into the heroic or the cowardly, with scant space for gradation.” Giraldi’s father was a man who “lived and died attempting to be worthy of an ancient code.” His son has paid him great honor with this profoundly moving memoir.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on August 26, 2016

The Hero's Body: A Memoir
by William Giraldi

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2017
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright
  • ISBN-10: 1631492934
  • ISBN-13: 9781631492938