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Review of Muscle (Samuel Wilson Fussell)

Like Memoirs of a Dervish, this is a coming of age story, but Sam Fussell, unlike Robert Irwin, was acting against the currents most youth of his age and background found themselves in. This memoir tells how Sam, a bookish, upper-class intellectual type working for an NYC publisher became a steroid using bodybuilder in California. Sam's father, Paul Fussell was an academic who wrote a still read book on class in America.

Muscle provides a glimpse into a subculture that few have been a part of and that is rarely talked about openly for reasons the author describes in the book. It was written in an age before political correctness was de rigueur amongst the class of people Sam belongs too, which makes it refreshing to read. Some of the dialog seems unrealistic (e.g. Sam's interactions with the bimbo receptionists at the California gym), but you get the impression that Sam is scrupulously honest in his recounting so I'm going to ascribe that to clumsily reconstructed dialog. His honesty contrasts sharply with many memoirs, particularly modern ones influenced by our societal narcissism, in which the authors try to portray themselves in a flattering light, or, if unflattering, at least romantic, as in memoirs of addiction.

Part of the attraction of bodybuilding for most of those who participate in it is a feeling of becoming stronger and more masculine, but Sam reveals the unnaturalness of the sport when he talks about dieting down for competition:

Thanks to the rigors of my training, my hands were more ragged, callused and cut than any longshoreman's. Thanks to the drugs and my diet, I couldn't run 20 yards without pulling up and gasping for air. My ass cheeks ached from innumerable steroid injections, my stomach whined for sustenance, my whole body throbbed from gym activities and enforced weight-loss. Thanks to the competition tan, my skin was breaking out everywhere. Vinnie and Nimrod explained that this was all perfectly normal.

"What, do you think this has anything to do with health?" Nimrod asked, shaking in mirth at the idea.

"Big Man, this is about looking good, not feeling good," Vinnie added soberly.

After years of training Sam makes it, not to the top, but to much higher levels of the sport than most ever reach, and is left feeling let down:

I became a bodybuilder as a means of becoming a caricature. The inflated cartoon I became relieved me from the responsibility of being human. But once I'd become that caricature, that inflated cartoon, I longed for something else. As painful and humiliating as it is to be human, being subhuman or superhuman is far worse.

His let down after nearly reaching what he thought he wanted reminds me of my own experiences with athletics. I was a very good rower in high school and college, competing at the high-national/low-international level. I had a legitimate chance of eventually competing in the Olympics. But one day I woke up I couldn't do it anymore. The whole thing felt silly and contrived: what was the point of rowing, a sport where you push your body to its limits to cross the finish line first in a boat that is hardly seaworthy? Since then I've realized that a lot life is like that; you can analyze anything you choose to do and point out all the reasons it is contrived or artificial, but ultimately you have to choose something to fill your time with. At least by pursuing bodybuilding Sam left us with a unique book, one no one else would be able to write. It appears that he is currently a hunter and search-and-rescue diver in Montana. I hope that is more to his liking and maybe one day we will get another superb memoir from him.

P.S. here is an interview with Sam from 2014. He is a remarkable person.