A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
In The Squared Circle David Shoemaker is on a mission. He really wants to clear up a few common misconceptions and make a philosophical point or two about professional wrestling. Not only is his enthusiasm infectious but he makes his three biggest arguments quite convincingly:
1). All wrestling fans over the age of 12 know it’s fixed and scripted. They have known since the 1930s and, darn it, they’ve liked it that way since the 1930s.
2.) The campy, trashy entertainment of professional wrestling can also be pretty complex. Wrestling is a sort of century spanning mythology, and its continued relevance is due to intriguing layers of reality and unreality. (Shoemaker takes the mythology comparison very seriously, by the way. Joseph Campbell is referenced and everything from Hercules to Lethe is invoked. My favorite is the characterization of Ms. Elizabeth as wrestling’s Helen: “The face that launched a thousand dropkicks.”)
3.) The men and women who are cast as these larger than life characters are often destroyed by the industry. The strain of life on the road, of script and reality all too often blurring, and the unbelievable physical toll of “faking” violence night after night makes for sad, short lives.
The way shoemaker goes about telling us this story is in a disjointed, almost textbook like format. Longish chapters on particular eras in the history of wrestling are followed by short biographies of 4 or 5 wrestlers from that time. There are also parenthetical chapters on particular topics like race in wrestling, important wrestling venues, or a lexicon of wrestling terms.
It makes for compelling, if slightly uneven reading. Certain of the biographies are the true standout chapters. His fifteen page tale of Bruiser Brody, for example, is a moving little masterpiece about an intelligent, articulate man cast as a behemoth of brainless violence. That violence crept its way into Brody’s real life and ended it in a brutal murder. Sadly, the book as a whole is not so concise. Shoemaker has a habit of over-complicating simple stories or needlessly repeating things that should be clear already. (Yes David, we know Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd was a standout defensive end for the San Diego Chargers who also wrestled as one of the ’70s greatest heels. You told us two chapters ago, and three chapters before that as well.) His research is occasionally questionable too. Quoting Wikipedia for a laugh (as he does early in the book) is fine, but quoting it quite seriously later on just got under my skin. Ultimately, though, it’s Shoemaker’s passion for the material that wins out over the flaws.
The Squared Circle is captivating stuff, just don’t expect it to be a definitive history.
Review by Matthew