Breaking the Male Code: William Giraldi’s “The Hero’s Body”
Out in the schoolyard in the early 1960s, when my fellow male classmates weren’t hurling, batting or kicking a spherical object, their favorite game was “War” — patterned largely, I believe, after Combat, a TV series set during World War II starring the rugged Vic Morrow (an actor who, two decades later, would die on a film set during a failed helicopter stunt). The jargon and rules of “War” were as incomprehensible to me as those of football. Interior lines? Lines of scrimmage? Sorry. Those lines may have existed, but I managed to color outside of them throughout my grade school career. Doing so was not always a breeze. Still, with only the occasional taunt of “Sissy!” and one memorable black eye, I fared comparatively well.
As I grew older I wondered if things had become easier for guys like me who didn’t conform to the exacting standards of the international code of the human male, the most vital components of which were speed, strength, fortitude, a desire for control and a deep interest in sports, games and anything with wheels other than a baby carriage. Having been steeped for several seasons in flower power, glitter rock and Free to Be…You and Me, had the culture of the 1980s and beyond handed a break to boy children who didn’t measure up? If so, I came to believe, it probably hadn’t been a big break.
My suspicion was recently confirmed when I read William Giraldi’s absorbing memoir The Hero’s Body, published earlier this year. I’d become interested in the author and his work when I heard him speak as part of a panel discussion on memoir writing at last month’s Boston Book Festival.
Giraldi, who grew up in (no joke) Manville, NJ, belonged to the generation following mine. In fact, I was born two years after his late father, who was also named William Giraldi. Young William was no certifiable sissy-boy — just quiet and bookish. Yet as part of an Italian-American family that worked in construction — presided over by a motorcycle-racing father and paternal grandfather (“Pop”) — the boy was decidedly out of his element. “I was made of other molecules, of what felt like lesser stuff,” he writes of his standing in the Giraldi clan. His was an especially testosterone-permeated home life: his mother fled Manville when her marriage to his father collapsed, leaving her three children behind. The one significant adult female in the picture was Parma, the devoutly Catholic paternal grandmother.
In Book 1 of The Hero’s Body, Giraldi writes about his stint as a competitive bodybuilder in his late teens. He essentially fell into the sport one day when he casually picked up free weights during a visit to his Uncle Tony’s in-home gym. Before long, though, he’d become a hardcore denizen of a gym called The Edge. He trained obsessively, and eventually began injecting himself with illicit, performance-enhancing drugs. Giraldi gained acceptance from his fellow trainees, who mostly overlooked the books he brought to the gym — written by the likes of John Keats and Walt Whitman. While it didn’t hurt that his emerging muscularity impressed his friends and made girls take notice, Giraldi largely bulked up to gain his father’s respect, although that motivation was recognized fully only in retrospect:
Consciously, at least, I never pawed after my father’s attention during my bodybuilding years, and the pursuit was all the more crucial to me when I sensed that he really didn’t get it.
Some degree of fatherly approval was eventually bestowed, along with a bag of chocolate bars, after a bodybuilding competition in which the kid impressed (and surprised) everyone by taking second place. As if participating in some sort of inter-generational rite of communion, the two Williams devoured the candy together. Not long after, The Edge was shuttered, and Giraldi began to direct his considerable energies toward the written word, first as a formal student of literature and later as a creative writer. He managed to eject himself from his blue-collar orbit into a career as a man of letters.
The “sacral creed” of maleness.
With Book 2, The Hero’s Body changes focus to the death of Giraldi’s father in 2000 — the result of a motorcycle accident on one of those Sundays when he, Pop and their speed-craving cronies raced together through the local countryside. Not anticipating a sharp curve in the road, the rider crashed into a guardrail at tremendous speed, sustaining three separate injuries (a broken neck, a slashed throat and intense brain trauma), each of which alone would have proved fatal. Most of the rest of the book relates how the author strove to come to terms with the loss of his father. He came to believe the death was largely attributable to a hereditary urge to express manliness through feats of derring-do. Giraldi doesn’t overstate the link between his own bodybuilding obsession and his father’s and grandfather’s motorcycle-racing habit, but the memoir’s title underscores the connection. Book 1 is about Giraldi fashioning a hero’s body for himself. Book 2 is about the quasi-heroic father’s corpse.
What makes the book especially rich is its author’s knack for shaping sentences, something he seems to do with the same diligent single-mindedness he once used to sculpt his abs, pecs, glutes and delts. Take, for instance, the following passage, in which he addresses the scorn heaped on bodybuilders by those outside the sport:
That stereotype with which bodybuilders are saddled — self-aggrandizers and simps, inauthentic athletes, all show and no go — has always been an injustice put forth by those with no eye for harmony on the human body, or those too fearful to admit the animality in man, too fearful to catch our own reflection in fellow hominoids, in the mighty chimp from whom we’ve sprung. Tell some people they’re a primate and watch their faces become uncomprehending.
Giraldi enhances his observations with epigrammatic quotations from everybody from Ovid to Dorothy Parker. Such literary allusions are usually apt, but they are also more than a little show-offy. That’s perhaps understandable, though, coming from a guy who, despite an initial shyness, once posed on a stage, exhibiting his shaven body while clad only in what amounted to a stripper’s g-string.
At one point Giraldi notes that his grandfather always referred to himself and his sons not as “carpenters” but rather as “builders.” Noting that carpentry is the vocation attributed to Jesus of Nazareth, the author observes that Pop “had no patience for the Nazarene’s unmanly meekness, his turn-the-other-cheek masochism.”
Proponents of the idea of “womb envy” would argue that men — lacking uteruses — compensate by gravitating toward activities that involve the creation of things, whether that means erecting houses or building up one’s own body. In the months leading up to this year’s presidential election, Donald Trump attracted blue-collar male voters — guys similar to members of the Giraldi family — in part by presenting himself as a fellow “builder.” “Nobody builds walls better than me, believe me,” he crowed, alluding to his proposed border wall along the US/Mexico border. (Never mind that the number of nails Trump has pounded in his lifetime with those smooth billionaire’s hands remains untallied.)
Expressing manliness through feats of derring-do.
In the nine days since the presidential election, many theories have been offered to explain Hillary Clinton’s highly unexpected loss to Trump. Most likely it was due to a range of overlapping factors rather than a single one. But in light of the persistent misogyny of Trump’s campaign and his frequent belittlement of his opponents, like “Little” Marco Rubio, it’s not a leap to say that many Americans simply couldn’t stomach the idea of the male code being disturbed by the election of anyone short of the most imposing, hoof-pawing bully available. What The Hero’s Body calls the “sacral creed” of maleness may seem vestigial to some of us, be we gay or bi men unconcerned with looking butch, or proud metrosexuals, or guys like Giraldi who, somewhere along the line, reached the conclusion that constantly testing one’s masculine prowess is exhausting and pointless. Yet the code remains stubbornly in effect, at least in many precincts. And, inevitably, also, in many schoolyards.