Kayfabe: A Not-at-all Staged Interview with Dan Mancilla
Below, friend of PN Brandon Davis Jennings interviews Dan Mancilla, who's novella The Deathmask of El Gaucho won The Little Presque Books Novella Prize and is available from Passages North.
BDJ: I want to get this out of the way first because, if I don't, I'll forget to ask it. Who are you and what, if anything, is your personal connection to the world of professional wrestling? Not everyone is as lucky as I am (they might not already know you), so this is probably a fairly important question that will help them to understand the who behind the writing of The Deathmask of El Gaucho in a way that might not be immediately obvious to a person who reads the book alone.
DM: I’m a writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I’m Professor of General Education at Aquinas College. I also teach Creative Writing at Kendall College of Art & Design. I completed my Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. I’m originally from Elgin, Illinois, which is a blue collar city about 30 miles northwest of Chicago, so I’d categorize myself as a lifelong Rustbelt Midwesterner.
My connection to the world of professional wrestling is that of a fan. I grew up watching AWA and WWF. I loved guys like Sergeant Slaughter, the Road Warriors, and Jake the Snake Roberts. I was a little boy in 1980s and loved wrestling, so, of course, I was a Hulkamaniac.
BDJ: Is The Deathmask of El Gaucho a project you've worked on for a long time, and could you tell us what inspired El Gaucho/Earl Atlas? i.e., are your wrestlers inspired by "real" wrestlers?
DM: In college my friends and I used to watch old wrestling tapes from the 80s. It was at once comedic and nostalgic for us. The wrestlers’ names were so cartoonish and ridiculous: the Repo Man, the Red Rooster, Hillbilly Jim... How could snarky and slightly buzzed college students not find that hilarious? Of course ten years earlier we marked-out for those cartoonish 1980s wrestlers. I think my tastes have come full circle because now I appreciate those guys and their personas. There’s a certain charm in the earnestness of those wrestler names, how their names and corresponding gimmicks informed one another. For instance, Repo Man—whose gimmick was that he was a repo man—dressed like a Keystone Cops/Hamburglar-type villain and snuck around the ring. Red Rooster had a crimson-red mullet and did a chicken dance in front of his opponents to psych himself up. What little kids wouldn’t appreciate such straightforward, black and white characterization?
At some point while we were going through all those old tapes I started imagining my own wrestlers. There was Irish Danny Rodriguez, Ulysses S. America, Ali Barber—the Sultan of Shears, Mario Andretti Petty, and Captain Mariner. Captain Mariner’s finisher was a submission hold called the Keelhaul Maneuver. Irish Danny Rodriguez beat his opponents with a neck-beaker called the Shamrock Shake.
At the time, I was enrolled in a creative writing workshop with David Stevenson—one of many fantastic writing teachers I’ve been lucky enough to work with over the years—but I didn’t really think of writing any fiction that incorporated the world of wrestling until I read Tony Earley’s short story, “Charlotte.” The first line of that story is, “The wrestlers were gone.” I thought that was so great. The rest of the story, like a lot of wonderful literature, builds on that elegiac note—from the physical loss Lord Poetry suffers at the hands of his arch-rival, Bob Noxious in “The Final Battle For Love,” to the loss of innocence the citizens of Charlotte experience when that city grows up, to the sense of loss the fans feel when the story’s fictional wrestling promotion packs up and leaves town. It struck me then that even if a story is about something on the surface (insert gimmick here), it doesn’t have to exclusively be about that. That’s a concept obvious to any child reading Dr. Seuss, but I just wasn’t making that connection with my own writing.
Not long after reading “Charlotte” I wrote the first draft of what would become the title story of my novella. Completely aping Tony Earley’s “the wrestlers were gone” line, I began “The Deahtmask of El Gaucho” with: “The wrestlers were coming.” Once I put that down on paper everything seemed to pour out.
That would have been about twenty years ago. Eventually that one wrestling story morphed into a (500 page!) novel. After making the rounds to publishers and agents without any interest I tucked the manuscript away in a drawer. I moved on to new subjects but would write more wrestling stories now and again. The newest one is about three past-their-prime wrestlers attending a funeral for their former valet—a woman with whom all three had been romantically involved at some point. In a final act of love (or maybe revenge) one of the wrestlers absconds with the corpse. That’s part of a novel-in-stories called All the Proud Fathers which will be published by Dock Street Press in November.
I suppose El Gaucho draws inspiration from any number of real wrestlers. I think his pop culture icon status and meteoric rise to fame (and definitely his appeal to little kids) was inspired by Hulk Hogan. But much of that character is invention. Earl Atlas always struggles with self-confidence. It’s what leads him to don the mask and become El Gaucho in the first place. In that way there’s a very distinct separation between Earl Atlas the man and El Gaucho the character. The Hulkster, on the other hand, strikes me as someone with an inexhaustible supply of self-confidence and someone for whom the personas of Terry Bollea and Hulk Hogan are almost indistinguishable at this point.
The obvious physical difference from Hogan is that El Gaucho wears a mask. I’ve always loved masked wrestlers. From iconic luchadores like El Santo and Blue Demon to the NWA’s Assassins and even to jobbers like the WWF’s Conquistadors, there was something about those masks. I’m sure that affinity was somehow related to Spiderman and Batman who were my favorite superheroes and most frequent Halloween costumes when I was a kid. I think there’s some of that masked vigilante in El Gaucho. He’s as much superhero as athlete. And like any good superhero, El Gaucho has a secret identity, an alter ego. Identity is a big part of that book. So much of what I was writing when I was working on Deathmask was about character and about the self. If identity is prominent in my work now, it’s linked directly to place and community—how setting shapes my characters and how those characters yearn to be part of something, to belong somewhere.
BDJ: Now that those questions are out of the way, I can ask you about the book itself. You start the text with a couple epigraphs: one from Death in the Afternoon and one from One Hundred Years of Solitude. What is it about those two texts and, in particular, the two quotes and their direct mention of spectating violence that you feel most applies to The Deathmask of El Gaucho? Do you think there is something innate in humans that makes us want to witness violence—even after we learn that the violence might be scripted?
DM: I wasn’t immediately thinking of violence when I chose those two passages, but of course it’s there. Like bullfighting, wrestling is ritual violence. It’s theatrical. And yes, like bullfighting, there is the risk of injury—mortal in some cases. If you consult actuarial tables, you’ll see that wrestling is a high risk occupation. I’m not even thinking of the stunts gone wrong and guys dying in the ring like Owen Hart. Look at the proliferation of wrestlers who die in their 40s and 50s of heart attacks or complications from the substance abuse which is so often ancillary to a life on the road.
Part of Deathmask focuses on Flaco, Antony, and Pig—three young wrestling fans. Those boys live in a violent world. Their neighborhood is a high crime, lower class one in a Rustbelt city called Black Hawk. (This is also the city where All the Proud Fathers is set. And yes, El Gaucho makes an appearance in that book.) For those boys it’s a world without many positive male role models. It’s a world devoid of heroes, where the good guys don’t always win. They see firsthand and, in some cases experience, a lot of violence. The morality play of the wrestling match provides for them, whether they’re aware of it or not, an example of good triumphing over evil through ritual violence.
Love and obsession also had a lot to do with referencing Death In the Afternoon. That book is Hemingway’s love letter to bullfighting in the same way that Moby Dick is a kind of love letter Melville wrote to whaling. In both texts the authors revel in the specificity of work. How a bullfight is structured, how a whale is rendered, etc. It’s obsessive. As a writer, I have to feel that obsession with my subject if I want my readers to care about it. I have to love it in an obsessive way. I was in the midst of that obsession when I was writing Deathmask.
With Marquez I was thinking about the nature of reality in the world of wrestling. I think of that all the time though, not just with wrestling. For people who don’t follow wrestling or only follow it casually, I’m sure there’s a certain perception of its fan-base. That it plays to the lowest common dominator, that it’s crude, lowbrow. But the vast majority of wrestling fans are smarter about the sport than outsiders give them credit for. Definitely smarter than many of the people in charge of telling the stories at WWE give them credit for. Other than children who (like I did) completely buy into the fantasy, many fans are in on the con to some degree. It’s a willing suspension of disbelief, yet the emotions fans feel when their favorite wrestlers lose or win are very real. Those are the same emotions someone rooting for a sports team might feel when their team wins or loses. This ability to feel the same emotions as one would when invested in any other “legitimate” contest while, at the same time, being aware of the artifice of the performance—that the outcomes are predetermined, that the punches are pulled—is quite sophisticated.
There’s a segment of the wrestling fan-base known as “smart marks” or “smarks.” These are the fans who pride themselves for being “in” on the con. There are websites devoted to backstage politics, second guessing story lines, pointing out botched moves or moments when wrestlers break character in the ring or “expose the business” by indiscreetly calling their next spot to their opponents. And even with all this “information,” these smarks are just as emotionally invested in the matches; they feel the disappointment and anger when their favorite wrestler loses. Sometimes that frustration is directed at the bookers who decided to push one wrestler over another rather than at the heels who cheated to win, but when everything is working, when the story the wrestlers are telling is compelling, when the wrestlers are at the top of their game, the smart marks can’t help but to suspend disbelief and revel in the moment. My happiest moments as a fan are when I completely lose myself in the world of the show, when all that artifice takes a backseat to a great, poetic contest, when a long-forgotten wrestler makes a surprise return, or when the underdog actually gets the pin. In those moments I mark-out in the very best sense of the word. Marquez or Hemingway, Stone Cold Steve Austin or the Undertaker—it’s the great storytellers who can pop the smart marks.
BDJ: Do you think that part of the magic of wrestling is that even though there is acting involved, some of it cannot be acted? I guess the best example my barely-initiated self can lean on is when Hulk Hogan body-slammed Andre the Giant; you can't fake being able to heft a man over your head and hold him there.
DM: Right. And let’s make no mistake about it, these men and women are athletes, world-class athletes at the higher levels. The athleticism and toughness, that’s real. Whether it’s a cruiserweight wrestler doing a 450 splash off the top rope onto his opponent or a superheavyweight press-slamming two men at once, there’s an awe-inspiring element to the physicality of wrestling. And when you take into consideration that everything requires a partner, that both people in the ring need to be in tune with one another and need to be able to trust the other one with their safety, there’s an even greater sense of awe.
BDJ: How important was it for you to include a journalistic piece early on in The Deathmask of El Gaucho? To be more specific: does Levesque's interview function as a way to better illustrate the idea of a shoot vs. a work and how shoots and works have pervaded every form of "live" entertainment? I don't want to get too political, but I am not merely talking about Real Housewives, I am also talking about a lot of the news we see.
DM: I often talk about “rabbit hole moments” with my creative writing students. It’s the moment when a character (and by extension the reader) plunges into the world of the story. Alice falling into Wonderland, the Pevensie siblings passing through the wardrobe into Narnia, a Raymond Carver character taking that first drink… Most stories that I can think of, whether fantasy or realism, have some kind of rabbit hole moment. Because professional wrestling is a subculture I figured not many readers of literary fiction were familiar with, it was important for me to have something that helped initiate them into that strange and wonderful world. Magazine profile pieces often take us down the rabbit hole of celebrity. It seemed like the most natural, least didactic way to bring my readers up to speed. My journalist, Levesque, is the reader’s surrogate, the outsider who has to learn about professional wrestling as he goes.
Gay Talese is one of my favorite writers. I was reading a lot of his celebrity profile essays at the time I was drafting the story about the reporter meeting the wrestler. I was in love with Talese’s Esquire essay, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold.” The great thing about that piece is how Talese paints a vivid, intimate picture of Sinatra without ever really getting close to him. He bites around the edges, talks to the people in Sinatra’s entourage, the groupies, producers, etc. Which makes sense. Sinatra, like a handful of other celebrities—people like Elvis or Muhammad Ali—was this entity on to himself, a persona or a mythology more than an actual person at that point. I really wanted to play with that idea. I wanted to contextualize El Gaucho’s larger than life persona in that piece. Unlike the Talese essay, my story is set just after El Gaucho’s star has taken off. The trajectory of that rocket ride is still pointed up.
The work vs. shoot element was only important to me on the level of blurring lines between person and persona. When does Earl Atlas end and El Gaucho begin? What does it mean for some of his little Gauchoholics when they see him with his figurative and literal masks off? In a much earlier form of the novel I was preoccupied with the postmodern aspect of wrestling. I was in grad school working on my M.F.A. and reading a lot of Paul Auster and John Fowles novels with writer-as-character and characters stepping out of the text to break the forth wall. It all seemed so very clever to me. Back then I desperately wanted my work to be clever. Thankfully I grew out of that phase. That all seems kind of precious and fussy to me now. I run from cleverness. Today when I approach the nature of reality in my work, I’m taking my cues from writers like Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and William Kennedy and Toni Morrison and coming at it organically, starting with a character and a story, not an idea or a logic problem.
BDJ: This book doesn't focus solely on the lives of wrestlers. There is also a bit of time spent with some of the fans (Gauchoholics) and their lives at and away from school. Anthony and Lolly are a couple of grade school kids who are doing their damndest to show that they like one another while at once failing to communicate that fact because they're still kids (and as I can attest from experience, communicating to my wife how much I love her is still just as difficult sometimes even though I'm 35 and have a Ph.D. in English). There is something magical about love at any age, but I think there is something even more magical about love when we aren't yet equipped with the ability to recognize that what we are feeling is love. I don't think there is a better scene to show this than the scene in Deathmask where Anthony and Lolly as kissing so awkwardly and yet they don't stop because, despite their ineptitude, the action they're performing is right; the kiss is bad, but it is not an act, it's not a work. Do you think that there is a parallel between the magical love of first crushes (for lack of a better phrase) and the magic of wrestling for its young fans (or fans of any age)?
DM: Both first love and wrestling are forms of magic predicated on innocence. (Maybe someone more cynical would substitute innocence with ignorance.) When I was a little boy and fell in love with wrestling, the question of verisimilitude never entered my mind. It existed outside of cartoons and comic books but also outside of professional sports. It just was. It was this uniquely strange and wonderful thing that showed up one day. Kind of like a crush. Of course professional wrestling had been around long before I first saw Hulk Hogan, but it was something new for me. I was discovering it. That’s how it goes for crushes and first love too, doesn’t it? When you fall for someone for the first time, that’s it. No one in the history of the world has experienced this kind of euphoria, and when the breakup or rejection occurs, no one else has plumbed the depths of existential angst that you have.
It’s easy for adults to dismiss those grand proclamations young people make when they’re experiencing first love or first heartbreak, but I try to be more respectful of those kids—both in real life and in my fiction. Those really are the biggest, most important, most intense and authentic events they’re going through.
Wrestling is the same. Everything is magnified. The feud between the babyface and the heel isn’t just because one guy cut the other one off on the expressway or because one guy snagged the last pack of discounted hot dogs at the grocery store. It’s good vs. evil. It’s all-encompassing, a life and death struggle that the fans are not only spectators to but also participants in. When King Kong Bundy ragdolls Hulk Hogan around a steel cage, Bundy’s not just beating up Hulk Hogan, he’s coming after me, he’s trying to destroy Hulkamania and all for which it stands. I joke that I’m not a good enough writer to tell grownup stories, those more nuanced slice-of-life stories set in the “real world,” and that I fall back on subjects like wrestling or adolescence or magic because it’s easier. But writing’s hardly ever easy for me. What’s more easily identifiable when I’m writing about young people or wrestling are the stakes. Everything’s important in those worlds. Everything’s at risk.
BDJ: This question, the final one, is about Emperor Jones 2. That chapter is so powerful to me every time I read it. It's stupid and dangerous to compare contemporary work to "classics" because someone on a reddit thread somewhere will just start a flame war that never dies in order to argue that my opinion is "wrong" (which is a stupid thing to do, and yet it goes on.) But really it's impossible not to see the similarities between that chapter and Moby Dick. And it isn't a mirror of whale/bear + El Gaucho/Ahab. That's not really the comparison that I'm interested in or that I'm talking about: to be clear. What I do mean is the idea of a man grappling (literally in the case of the wrestling match) with overwhelming desires. I don't want to spend too much time here on literary analysis (partly because I, mostly, hate it and partly because I don't want to tell too much of the story in the event that someone reading this interview has yet to read the book). But you have El Gaucho wrestling a bear in this rundown, pseudo circus sideshow atmosphere in the middle of nowhere and El Gaucho doesn't break Kayfabe. (Perhaps you could tell the readers what that is in case they're unfamiliar.) You have a man wrestling a bear in front of an audience who doesn't give a damn who he is, and he still lets nothing get in the way of giving them the best show he can manage. I want to make this question simple: what is this metaphor? But I also don't want to do that because that's stupid and dangerous; it's the kind of thing a bad teacher does in front of a classroom of naive children. I could instead write it as a joke question: do you think Leonardo DiCaprio owes you some gratitude for his recent Oscar win? That might be less funny if you've not seen The Revenant (it might also just not be funny...I'm not laughing and its my own joke.) So I think the best way to approach this is by asking you to talk about what it means that the bear we see wrestle is Emperor Jones 2.
The legend of Pogue Malone is how the book closes, and we are left with the mystery of his murder. And the narrator, speaking from the collective we, says: "We’re pitted against one another outside the ring as well as in, all grasping at the memory of Malone, all of us struggling to define our relationship to the father. All striving (and falling short) to capture the world’s attention as he had" (104).
This is a thing a bear can't consciously do: try to match the greatness of his father (at least not according to science). And yet the characters in the book do measure Emperor Jones, Emperor Jones 2, and Emperor Jones 3 against one another. Why do they do that? Do you think the men measure the bears against one another because they themselves believe that the audience measures the wrestlers in that way? And, if so, what does that say about El Gaucho and the Warthog and what do you think it says about the people filling the bleachers to watch a man wrestle a bear?
DM: The boring, uninteresting (but honest) answer is that I really didn’t have any metaphors in mind when I was writing about El Gaucho wrestling the bear. I’m trying to remember when I was drafting that one. That was back when Deathmask was still going to be my magnum opus, Tolkien-esque celebration of all things wrestling. By that point I figured, bearbaiting’s a real thing, and I haven’t written about men wrestling bears yet. But people wrestling bears is something we see all the time.(Ok, maybe something I see all the time.) So going back to the axiom of the short story being a day out of the ordinary I asked myself what would be out of the ordinary for people who wrestle bears. That led me to this question (SPOILER ALERT for those who care, although I don’t think the story is predicated on the surprise element of this moment): What happens if the bear dies during the match? What kind of trouble will that bear’s death in the middle of the ring cause my (human) characters, and how might they overcome that trouble?
Then the whole notion of keeping kayfabe, of keeping the con going in order maintain the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief came into play. It felt like a great opportunity to demonstrate that El Gaucho—who’s pretty much at the bottom of his character arc at that point—is still, or at least still has it in him to be, the greatest wrestler in the world. If he can work a match with a dead bear without breaking kayfabe and continue, to borrow from John Gardner, weaving the “fictive dream” for his audience, then he’s clearly the greatest, the one true heir to Pogue Malone.
That was the straightforward, no bullshit answer. Now let me step back and answer that question in terms of symbol and metaphor, at the level of literary analysis that I think the question was intended despite the assertion that you, like I, like most writers we know, dislike that kind of analysis of our own work.
So much of this comes back to identity for me. As I mentioned earlier, I was really focused on identity and persona when I was writing Deathmask. I was in my twenties and finding myself as a writer and as a man. I think most works by young writers tend to look inward rather than outward. Compare Stephen Daedalus in Stephen Hero, the early version of Portrait of the Artist as a Yong Man, to Daedalus in Ulysses. There’s a huge shift when I read those two books. Daedalus is no longer the stand in for an author trying to find his way. He’s a fully realized character who’s stepped out of Joyce’s shadow.
Maybe that’s where the names of the animals come in for me. I think that sense of identity is reflected in them and their names. In “Emperor Jones” the animals have the same names, just different numbers. Emperor Jones for the bears, Duke Thompson for the dogs. That’s kind of the opposite of the human wrestlers in the book who are, ostensibly, themselves on the inside and keep trying on different gimmicks to get over with the audience. On one level it’s like hitting the reset button. The wrestlers might be thinking, Ok. This cowboy gimmick didn’t get over. I’m going lay low for a while and come back with a mask and a cape and a new name and the fans will love me. But, as El Gaucho learns, as a lot of us learn as get older, we can only mask what’s inside for so long. You can keep hitting the reset button and keep trying on new gimmicks but if you’re not good with it, not good with you on the inside, none of it matters.
The reset button with the bears is obviously the number. This is still Emperor Jones, but now it’s #3. And because he’s Emperor Jones there’s the expectation that there will be some specific qualities to him—some essential Emperor Jonesness, if you will. He’ll be a fantastic wrestler, but he’ll also be powerful and menacing. Just like the human wrestler who holds out hope that the new gimmick transcends his personality—that the cape, mask, or cowboy hat magically imbues him with newfound charisma or physical talent—there’s some hope that the essence of the original Emperor Jones carries over into the second and third and that the name itself, like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride (there’s some highbrow literary analysis for you), establishes a predefined set of expectations and reactions from the audience.
I think the numbering of the animals can also be seen as a failed attempt to arrest time. When we see Emperor Jones Number 3 waiting in the wings it’s not what the narrator sees in the bear that matters, it’s what he doesn’t see. Compared to the previous Emperor Jones, the one he spent a career wrestling, he new on lacks humanity. But of course that’s not it. It’s erasure. It’s nonbeing. With that new Emperor Jones the reset button is pushed and all the accomplishments of the previous Emperor Jones, both the matches and his opponents, are nullified. They cease to exist and by extension perhaps the narrator, a wrestler who marked his career by how he fared versus the previous Emperor Jones ceases to be.
Great. Now my eye’s twitching and I’m having flashbacks to all those Lit Theory papers I wrote on Derrida, Lacan, and Žižek. So thanks for that, man.
BDJ: I guess I have one more question. Who do you think killed Pogue Malone?
DM: I could say that the business killed him or fame or the stress of life on the road. Or, to be cute, I could tell you that the reader killed him when they closed the book. Or I could tell you that the Blanchard kid really was his son. And maybe the kid killed Pogue Malone because he loved him and didn’t know any other way to express that love except through violence because he’s an American and a young man. And because of his father’s vocation, perhaps violence was the only dialect of love that Pogue Malone understood. Or maybe Blanchard killed him because he thought he was somehow avenging his mother’s honor. Malone knocked her up and skipped town, after all. Maybe I’m killing him right now by analyzing this and telling you what I think happened. Maybe it was the gangster promoters who realized they couldn’t buy Malone once he learned that he had more stroke than they did. Maybe it was a work. Everyone was in on it because Malone wanted to retire and one last big stunt would be good for business. Maybe Pogue Malone did himself in when he could no longer separate himself from his persona, when he became a mark for himself.
Or maybe not. On this matter, I’m gonna keep it kayfabe.