“THE MAN controlling his environment is today the prevailing image of masculinity,” Susan Faludi writes in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.

A man is expected to prove himself not by being part of society but by being untouched by it, soaring above it. He is to travel unfettered, beyond society’s clutches, alone — making or breaking whatever or whoever crosses his path.

The problem with this image, according to Faludi, is that it lacks historical accuracy. The image of the prototypical man as a loner who can fight his way out of any scrape is the product an “avalanche of Marlboro Men and Dirty Harrys and Rambos,” a false mantle of power that at the close of the 20th century has been reduced to a “phantom status.”

However, for the men in William Giraldi’s new memoir, The Hero’s Body, masculinity is no phantom mythos. The author’s father, uncles, and especially his tough-as-nails grandfather are working-class men from a working-class town — the aptly named Manville, New Jersey (after the Johns Manville Corporation, the insulation and building materials maker that once employed the bulk of the town’s residents). Fifteen minutes from highbrow Princeton, Manville is “straight from the blues notes of a Springsteen song […] a town of plumbers and masons, pickup trucks and motorcycles, bars, liquor stores, and football fields.” Against such a backdrop, the Giraldi men almost seem like golems formed from the Manville clay. They prize weightlifting and motorcycles and the “dignified endurance of pain.” William’s grandfather drives around with a rubber Incredible Hulk doll cable-tied to the grille of his truck. When William notices his father’s savagely callused hands, he gives him a new pair of work gloves; but his dad refuses to wear them for fear of looking weak on the job. For the Giraldis, masculinity isn’t a style or even a way of life. It’s a “sacral creed.”

Yet the author himself is an apostate, in both body and spirit. At the memoir’s outset, the young William is 15, a high school sophomore, his mother absent following his parents’ divorce. Already small and lean, a month-long bout with meningitis leaves him straining to see triple digits on the bathroom scale; eight months later, his first girlfriend dumps him for a football star who shoves William against a door and tells him to meet him outside, an invitation he’s too afraid to accept. Instead of the Hulk, the author is drawn to Spider-Man, and later to ninjas, precisely because both the web-slinger and the shinobi derive their power from something other than size. Further undercutting his machismo, William totes around paperbacks of Poe and Verne and The Iliad, much to the chagrin of his family. He himself fears he has turned into a “weakling always with a book in my hand, an unmasculine and romantically vulnerable softie.”

Ashamed and seeking redemption, the boy follows one of his uncles into his basement gym and is baptized into a new life of bodybuilding. William begins pumping iron first to get strong — after a few months he’s ripped enough to stare down the jock who stole his girl — and then, as weightlifting becomes his driving obsession, to win contests. Abandoning the family basement for a professional gym the next town over, he’s taken in by the other lifters, becomes a steroid aficionado, develops a jeweler’s eye for his body’s every curve and flaw. Grunting away inside the sprawling complex of spandex and metallurgy, his own mirrored reflection juxtaposed with the framed posters of the gods of the sport, Giraldi notes how strange this world must appear to the unconverted: the orgasmic facial contortions and noises, the grotesque “earthworm” veins bulging atop the muscles, the anabolic steroids that transform professional bodybuilders into “Santas among elves.”

Giraldi does some of his best writing when calling out the reader’s impulse to see the oiled men and women on the pages of Flex magazine as freaks tampering with nature. He argues that bodybuilding is “is more spectacle than sport, an art form as elite as anything you see in the American Ballet Theater” and a relentless striving toward a Platonic “balance of form only a handful of human beings will ever achieve.” The competitive bodybuilder is not only a performance artist, he’s also a hunger artist, since winning contests requires both the amassing of muscle as well as the shedding of fat, which turns out to be quite a challenge when your body fat percentage is already in the single digits. In one of the book’s most vivid scenes, William’s training partners, Rude, Sid, and Victor, gather in an empty office to sketch out the diet William will follow in preparation for his first bodybuilding contest. The debate showcases the microscopic obsessiveness that bodybuilding demands and the tribal camaraderie it makes possible:

“What vegetable are we talking here?”
“String beans will work. Never cauliflower, though. Let’s try to keep it green, whatever it is.”
“If he’s feeling hungry at all, not full enough, he can switch to Brussels sprouts too. Those’ll keep him feeling fuller.”
“That slimy shit at the bottom of the poultry package? Those are his nutrients right there. He’s gotta drink that shit if he wants nutrients.”
“Any fruit at all? He can get away with an apple or an orange if he wants the taste.”
“No goddamn fruit at all. No sugars at all. Those simple carbs are too quick. Show me any dude who’s ever built or maintained muscle with fruit.”
“I’m just saying, he can afford an apple for the taste. I’m talking one a day, if he needs it.”

William stays with the program, force-feeding himself flavorless steamed chicken while his family gorges on his grandmother’s homemade Italian, pumping his veins with Sustanon and Winstrol, scything away his body hair, and coating himself with bronzer — all of which he recounts with detailed, entertaining attention. Bodybuilding is a good fit for a young obsessive, and William excels because he’s able to sustain a furibund intensity his pals lack. For his efforts, William earns second place at his first contest, and with it, a moment of uncharacteristic praise from his father, uncle, and grandfather. Yet even in his moment of triumph, William is starting to look beyond the gym. By the memoir’s midway point, he has largely outgrown his fraternity of gym rats — college beckons, along with a long-term romance and a writing life. For William’s father, on the other hand, growing older means a chance to reclaim the youthful love he’d years ago set aside in order to raise his family: motorcycles.

The Hero’s Body is essentially two books (a taxonomy Giraldi himself employs): the first depicts his Charles Atlas–like rise from weakling to bodybuilder, while the second is devoted to his father’s death in a motorcycle accident when William is just 25. Motorcycles rarely appear in the first half; bodybuilding receives only scant mention in the second. The crash occurs in May 2000, on a rural route in eastern Pennsylvania. William’s father — also named William, like his father and grandfather — is 47, a few months away from remarrying, and, after many years of tight budgets, at last able to afford a Yamaha R1 superbike, which he spends every Sunday racing along Pennsylvania’s curvy back roads at breakneck speeds. Even before the crash, Giraldi understands the dangers of motorcycles, noting the frequency of crashes and the number of family friends lost to racing. When his father’s accident occurs, he finds himself numb with dreadful knowing. He writes, “What was so regrettable for me — what I was beginning to digest, even during those initial jolts, in those early hours of knowing — was that my father’s death didn’t feel nightmarish at all. It felt outright expected. Of course he’d kill himself on that machine. Of course he would.” But dreading a violent death hardly helps to mitigate its arrival. The parent who had sacrificed his youth for the author and his siblings is gone. His grief is heart-wrenchingly inconsolable.

In 2012, Giraldi infamously panned Canadian writer Alix Ohlin in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, writing that her language “limps onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor.” Not surprisingly, the review garnered a fair bit of blowback, as writers and critics rushed to Twitter and the blogosphere to defend Ohlin’s honor and proclaim Giraldi a crank. I won’t wade into the controversy except to say that Giraldi is, if nothing else, a man of his word: there isn’t a sentence in The Hero’s Body that lacks vigor or limps onto the page. His prose is sonorously throttled like a twin-barrel exhaust, and as Giraldi feeds “the mandatory obsessiveness of grieving,” his attention to language becomes more acute. The single-minded focus he’d once brought to bodybuilding he now applies to motorcycles and the cult of racing them. He agonizes over the coroner and police reports, ferreting out the tautologies and connotative slippages that make the official lingo so tedious and opaque.

But it’s also here that the memoir begins to grind. The revved up language and etymological inquiries feel like an overcompensation, a writer consciously pausing to flex some linguistic muscle, and the pace of the narrative slows considerably. Throughout the memoir Giraldi recounts his love of literature — not stories or novels or reading, but literature, which ironically suggests a hierarchical manliness of another sortand peppers his account with quotations from Auden and Ovid and Nabokov and many others, almost all of them male and white and dead. Though literature offers William a cerebral refuge from the physicality of bodybuilding and his family’s macho chest-pounding (and, in at least one instance, gets him laid), the heavy diet of Olympian literary wisdom eventually starts to seem gratuitous, a casting about for poetic insight rather than a focusing lens through which to see the father he so desperately misses, or the life the son lives in his absence. By the “Coda” section, Giraldi is married and a father of two sons himself, but the years between his father’s death and his present life are missing. The story’s plot effectively stops when Giraldi is 25, before the masculine codes he’d learned as a boy can truly affect how he’ll live as a man.

Then again, grief rarely follows a training program, a diet, or a straight road. Grief is a burden the bereaved must lift and lift and lift in the dim faith that it might one day lead not only to strength but to intelligence. “Living well […] is also the best homage to those who made you,” Giraldi writes, hoping to memorialize and honor the men who have come before him. But no matter how obsessively we pour over memories and chisel away at language in an effort to conjure the dead, words — as William Giraldi knows only too well — can never take their place.

¤

David McGlynn teaches at Lawrence University in Wisconsin and is the author of A Door in the Ocean.