One Helluva Novelluva
Or, A Deathmask that I'll Tear off Again and Again: Brandon Davis Jennings on Little Presque Isle novella contest winner, Dan Mancilla's The Deathmask of El Gaucho
A couple days ago I was lucky enough to find Dan Mancilla's The Deathmask of El Gaucho stuffed in my mailbox when I was headed back out the door to pick up my daughter's first birthday cake. I'd forgotten to swing by the bakery while out running errands earlier; the cake was the only thing (on a fairly long list) that I forgot. And what kind of dad would I be if I didn't nearly screw up the most important things in my daughter's life once in a while? (Actually, I Navarro make miscakes. Ba-doosh.)
Because I've been blessed with good fortune and opportunities time and again by the folks at Passages North, I was one of the judges for the Little Presque Books novella contest last year. So I'd already read Deathmask, but I read it again, twice, because it is one of the best books I've read in a long time. And, unlike The Brothers Karamazov, reading this book didn't require a ten-year commitment.
Deathmask is, at its core, a story about American masculinity: how it's displayed versus how it exists internally. It's a story about who the wrestlers within its pages become as "the life" takes its toll on their bodies, bodies that fans and many of the wrestlers themselves work hard to forget are the bodies of mortal men.
I know that not everyone who reads this book will have grown up during the days of Hulkamania and Andre the Giant. Sorry if you missed it; it was great. (I'm certain that when Trump says he wants to make America great again, he is referring specifically to bringing Andre the Giant back from the dead). I did grow up during that sweet spot in history, and my brother and I were so engaged by what we saw on TV that we had our father sign us up for wrestling at the YMCA (or its equivalent in Tacoma, Washington). We were excited to fly from turnbuckles, pile drive helpless bad guys, and flatten goons by bludgeoning them with folding chairs. When we showed up for our first practice and were handed our singlets, we quickly realized that there was a lot less magic in the wrestling we were participating in than the wrestling that we'd seen on television. We put on the singlets and felt pathetic because of our smallness, and we quit wrestling after unremarkable performances at our only meet. I do not regret it.
I'd be lying if I said nostalgia had nothing to do with why I like The Deathmask of El Gaucho so much, but I also liked Thundercats when I was young, and when I watch it now (which is never), I only like it because of nostalgia (in fact, I like Thundercats a lot more in my mind than I do when its on a screen). Deathmask is not engaging because of nostalgia, it engages me because of the world and the characters Mancilla populates that world with. The history he builds for the world of professional wrestling and all its players is richly drawn, and, at times, those players are given breath and blood with little more than a name from which to picture them: Otto Von Zeppelin, Don Slaughter, Black Jack Covert, or my favorite: Frenchy Bravo.
This is no small compliment. The image conjured by the simple mention of a name was one of the things that was so amazing about wrestling when I was a child. Before I had ever seen Andre the Giant on television, I pictured a giant. And then, when I saw him on TV, his giant-ness delivered in a way that was magical; in fact, he was bigger than I could have imagined because even though I had seen Jack and the Beanstalk cartoons, I knew the difference between animation and reality. Andre the Giant was a real man wearing a singlet, and no man was supposed to be that big; therefore, he was a real giant. That is the kind of magic Deathmask delivers. Reality is skewed just enough to help you believe that what you are reading is real even when you know the book is fiction.
Mancilla doesn't stop there, though. He also offers a long, close look at something that I never witnessed as a child: the men behind their characters. It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I learned Andre the Giant was in constant physical pain; he had the front seats of his car removed so that he could sit in the back seat to drive somewhat comfortably. He was so large that there was nowhere he could go and not be noticed and objectified in a way that people rarely consider when talking about men. Yes professional wrestlers are putting themselves on stage and they become objectified as a result of some of their own choices (Andre is an exception to this in a few ways, but this isn't about him). But we rarely get to see who they are under their masks or outside of the ring until after they've died of heart attacks (as Andre himself did) or in ways as sad and lonely as one of Mancilla's characters: Don "The Bruiser" Frederick who suffocated (presumably under a barbell) in his basement while bench pressing in the early hours of the morning to make sure that when he stepped into the squared circle later that evening, his chest would be as chiseled as the massive chests of the comic book heroes that his young fans would compare it to.
Deathmask takes us from the pinnacle of El Gaucho's career to the very bottom. We ride the wave from start to finish and at times we're afforded the opportunity to witness a beauty that only the combination of strength and sleight of hand can create when an audience is aware that it's being fooled. Part of the beauty of professional wrestling is that, like in fiction, we can choose to let it fool us. Realism is not real after all or else it wouldn't be an "ism", and despite the realness we experience in these characters' lives, they are no more real than the characters they portray in the ring.
Andre the Giant was a man with a disorder (acromegaly) that caused him to grow to an extreme that many people had never witnessed, and still he was just a man. But he was a giant man and no amount of acting could make him smaller. The same is true of Hulk Hogan; he was (and is) bound, like all men, by the limitations of his own mortality, bound by the limits of his own strength and intelligence. Hogan's ability to body slam Andre the Giant is not something that a man can pretend to do physically, and as a child, I didn't yet know any part of wrestling was an act. It was amazing to me when I saw Hulk lift Andre and slam him to the mat after having failed to do so earlier in the match. And now, as an adult, even though I know that it was scripted, that doesn't alter the fact that Hulk Hogan was physically strong enough to lift a man of Andre's size: 6'11" and 450 pounds. It was a mixture of physical strength and drama that helped to make that wrestling match between Hogan and Andre stay fresh in my memory after all these years. What makes reading Deathmask better than watching that old match on Youtube is Mancilla's ability to go deep enough into the characters of the world he's created to make me care about them inside and outside of the ring without asking me to search outside of the two covers that contain the entirety of Deathmask to learn anything else. I don't need a book on El Gaucho's history in order to understand him. I understand him as well as I need to.
The Deathmask of El Gauchois, for me, the literary equivalent of that body slam I witnessed all those years ago. I know the world Dan Mancilla has created is not our world, and I also know that it couldn't be any closer to the world we live in and still be art. A good book helps you to forget you're reading about characters. A good book helps you to see the world in ways that you might not have seen it otherwise. A great book makes you want to read it again. I've read this book three times. And I will read it again.
Brandon Davis Jennings is an Operation Iraq Freedom Veteran from West Virginia. He graduated from Bowling Green State University with an MFA in fiction and from Western Michigan University with a PhD in English. His award-winning Kindle Single, Waiting for the Enemy, is available now on amazon.com. His second Kindle Single, Battle Rattle, will be available soon. Links to some of his work and his blog can be found at: www.brandondavisjennings.com.