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William Giraldi Essayshark

CAMBRIDGE — The Boston-based writer William Giraldi met his wife in his home state of New Jersey. He was teaching at a small university there; Katie, who’d come to the United States from Taiwan with her family, was an art student.

Now they have three young boys. Giraldi, a novelist and the fiction editor at the Boston University-based literary magazine AGNI, spends his days immersed in reading and writing. Katie, he acknowledges, is the “rudder” of the family.

“She’s the toughest person I’ve ever met,” he says.

For Giraldi, that’s not just an idle compliment. He grew up in a family dominated by men, and by their perceptions of what it means to be a man. His hometown, in fact, is called Manville.

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After publishing two novels — the fantastical debut “Busy Monsters” and the thriller “Hold the Dark,” which is being made into a motion picture — Giraldi has written a new memoir about the man’s world of his upbringing, and its consequences. “The Hero’s Body” examines the teenage years he spent in Manville in pursuit of bodybuilding glory, and the loss of his father in a horrific, high-speed motorcycle accident when he was still in his 40s.

For years, Giraldi says, he refused to see that his family’s high regard for reckless masculinity was a subject worthy of literature.

“I put off this book for a long time,” says Giraldi, sitting in the monastic, book-filled front room of his family’s two-bedroom apartment in a Cambridge courtyard building. “I was ashamed. It wasn’t until I was able to mature as an individual that I realized it was nothing to be ashamed of.”

Today, at 40, Giraldi is physically compact, almost aggressively average. Padding around the apartment in a T-shirt, a baggy pair of cargo shorts, and bare feet — visitors leave their shoes at the door — he shows no sign of once having earned enough muscle mass and definition to compete as a bodybuilder.

Other than roughhousing with his boys and walking to work at BU, he says, he gets very little exercise. In the winter, he’ll ride a stationary bike at the university; in summer, he’d rather drink beer.

But there was a time when he lived for the rituals of the gym — the grunting, heaving weight training, the preening in front of mirrors and, in an era before such performance enhancement was considered taboo, the injection of steroids.

“The Hero’s Body” opens with a harrowing recollection of a youthful bout with meningitis. For years, Giraldi assumed he became obsessed with weightlifting as a response to his perceived weakness.

“It was a fortification against all the missiles in the world that are aimed at you,” he remembers. “Here’s this omnivorous world that’s ready to chew you up.”

Only later in life did it occur to him that his hunger for weight training also may have been an appeal to the machismo of his father’s lineage. No one in his family read books. The men aspired to the classic John Wayne/Clint Eastwood archetype: an honorable man doesn’t use words, but actions.

Once, while in high school, Giraldi fell into a funk after a girlfriend broke up with him. When, in an effort to explain himself, he showed his father a pile of old love notes, his father marched the son into the garage. There he kept a cedar chest that contained stacks of notes written to him over the years by Billy’s mother — the woman who’d left him a few years prior for another man.

“Words are easy,” Giraldi’s father said bitterly. “A person’s words aren’t worth [expletive].”

To bring the point home, he took the cedar chest into the backyard, doused it with gasoline, and lit a match. The father and son stood together “staring at the fire,” Giraldi writes, “at all of my mother’s untrue sentences disappearing in black smoke.”

Yet for Giraldi, words are everything.

“Language has always been holy to me,” he says. From a young age, when he attended Catholic school, he was enthralled by the liturgy.

“I loved the whole show, the pageantry of it,” he recalls. “As a storyteller, that was an incomparable education.”

Later, working behind the desk at the gym, he often concealed the latest novel he was reading inside the pages of a muscle magazine. His casual conversation is peppered with references to quotes by his favorite writers — Emerson, Wilde, Kafka (“I am made of literature”) — or from the novels he cherishes.

Sven Birkerts, the essayist and editor of AGNI, says that Giraldi recently mentioned that he’d spent two months devouring work by and about Melville and rereading “Moby-Dick” for a piece he’s been working on.

“I think he is a deeply obsessive individual,” Birkerts says. “He has this quality of deep absorption. His bookishness is quite amazing, especially because he presents as just a regular guy.”

Giraldi says he labors over his writing, often pacing more than typing. Some days, he might work eight hours to produce five sentences. He wishes his father was still alive so he could correct him: Words aren’t easy.

“Not the right ones,” he says.

Having lived in Boston for the better part of 20 years, Giraldi only recently developed an urge to revisit the middle-class community where he grew up. His life here is complicated, he says, by academia and literary circles.

Going home to visit his grandparents or his Uncle Nicky means “I don’t have to discuss literature,” he says. “I can just grill hot dogs or talk about motorcycles, or go fishing.”

He doesn’t ride motorcycles himself, but he did spend plenty of time examining the circumstances of his father’s death. The police report indicated his father was going about 100 miles per hour on a back road when he encountered a sudden bend and hit the guardrail.

The apartment door swings open and Giraldi’s oldest boy, Ethan, 6, walks in looking dejected. He feels a little sick to his stomach, he tells his father after a little prodding.

When Katie follows, towing 4-year-old Aiden and carrying the newborn Caleb, she explains that Ethan bumped his head in the playground. The teacher doesn’t think it’s a concussion, she says.

Giraldi notes that Ethan complained of an upset stomach yesterday. The bump on the head is probably unrelated.

Later that evening, they’ll spend three hours in the emergency room.

From ‘The Hero’s Body’ by William Giraldi:

Earlier that day, my brother and I asked Pop if we could display a large photo of my father and his bike, and that photo was the first thing you saw at the wake: my father grinning behind the machine that killed him. We wanted it there without fully comprehending why; we probably would have told you that he loved the thing, and we loved him, so there it was, an effort to honor his unstanchable passion.

But I suspect now that we were trying to remain faithful to our family’s legacy of motorcycle eros, to those particular codes of esteem, to the cult of speed to which our father and uncles and Pop belonged, as if this cult were his singular source of definition. . . . This was the bike as crucifix, as True Cross, so fitting for a clan of Catholics. The instrument of death became the object of veneration.

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.

As a teenage bodybuilder, William Giraldi would hide a battered old Keats paperback between the pages of Muscle & Fitness magazine to read during his evening cardio, a move he calls “a reversal of the classic Playboy mag inside a textbook”. His new memoir, The Hero’s Body, is littered with anecdotes like this: tales of the insecurities and absurdities of masculinity, which document the lengths men go to in order to feel a sense of self-worth in their manhood. Literature, art, music – almost anything that would be of no use on a battlefield – were condemned as effeminate by Giraldi’s family and gym buddies, forcing him to pursue these interests in secret.

“That’s the perfect illustration of the kind of bifurcated life I was leading at the time,” Giraldi says, likening his furtive Keats reading to that of a gay person in the closet. “You’ve got this part of yourself that’s central to yourself, that’s at the hub of you. You can’t express it, you can’t exert it, you can’t walk the way you want to walk in the world because of how you’ll be perceived.”

The first half of The Hero’s Body explores Giraldi’s foray into the world of weightlifting and muscular showmanship – initially sparked by the weakness he felt following a bout of meningitis at 15 – while the latter portion delves into his father’s violent death in a motorcycle accident a decade later. Both, he says, were the result of “a primitive form of tribalism in which men were forced – or volunteered – to prove themselves in the most dangerous ways”.

Throughout history, males have participated in initiation rites as they enter adulthood. To Giraldi, this goes someway towards explaining why his bodybuilding began in his mid-teens, and yet his father was significantly older, in his 40s, when he got into biking. “It shows that it never really goes away, that there’s an initiation rite but then once you’re initiated you’re never let off the hook. You’re never free from it. It’s a poisoned way of being a man, because you can never win.”

While many of the ideas he raises are universal, The Hero’s Body is a somewhat turbocharged, uniquely American take on what it means to be male. Giraldi grew up in the aptly named Manville, New Jersey (“a town straight from the blue notes of a Springsteen song”) at a time in which masculinity was at its most brutally realised in both US politics and pop culture. After the failures of Vietnam, America needed an injection of sheer masculine posturing - something to which Stephen E de Souza, the screenwriter behind Commando, Die Hard and numerous other 80s action flicks, attributed the rise in big, muscular action stars.

Indeed, it was under a Hollywood actor who specialised in portraying particularly strong, manly characters, that much of this new force of hypermasculinity reared its head. “After the presidencies of Ford and Carter, who, let’s face it, weren’t very masculine presidents – Carter was effeminate, Ford was ineffectual – Reagan comes along and he’s full of this masculine brute and bluster. He was the guy who was pretending on screen to be of highly masculine stock, and then he gets into office and we needed to pump up, as it were, our national image,” says Giraldi. “I think [de Souza] is correct about Vietnam, but keep in mind also that Reagan’s administration was a full stop on the victories of feminism in this country, and the emasculating effects of feminism.”

The idea of a showy celebrity whose presidential campaign is fuelled by a group of insecure, virulent, anti-feminists hardly feels like a distant memory in 2017. While several decades have passed since Giraldi’s adolescence, exploring the male psyche feels as essential now as it would have been 30 years ago. On the current president’s “ostentatious masculinity”, Giraldi considers it a compensatory act: “The Trumpian bluster, the masculine showmanship of Trump is a facade. It’s a front, it’s hiding deep wells of weakness and what is perceived as femininity.”

How a bookish teenager bodybuilt his way to Manville

Although Giraldi’s steroid-abusing, bodybuilding teens may be unfamiliar territory for most (some reviews have criticised The Hero’s Body for being unrelatable, which seems only true in the most superficial of readings), at the heart of the book lies a series of real, human stories about men and their self-destructive behaviours. One passage that struck me as particularly familiar is in the aftermath of his father’s motorcycle accident. Two of the bikers who had been with him that day claimed to have heard him say he didn’t feel well, words Giraldi knew his father never would have spoken. It has echoes, I tell him, of my own father’s death, which was preceded mere seconds earlier by his assertions that he was feeling better after a few days under the weather. “That would have been a glaring signal of his weakness, and to the clan,” Giraldi says. “To be perceived as weak when you’re a man is a death of another kind.”

Giraldi believes he began subconsciously writing The Hero’s Body the day of his father’s death, accumulating lines in notepads here and there over the years that followed. In a demonstration of his newly open love of literature, he refers to Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th-century work Autobiography, in which Cellini advises men to wait until they’ve passed 40 to write their life stories. As it happened for Giraldi, by the time he’d reached this milestone, he’d “been born as a father, and with that comes its own brand of staggered excellence.” The arrival of his sons spurred him to tell the story of their grandfather so as to keep his memory alive, and, it would seem, to try to prevent them from going down the same path their male ancestors had done. Notably, none of Giraldi’s children were given the first name William, breaking a family tradition that stretched back four generations.

Unsurprisingly, Giraldi has taken a very different approach to bringing up his sons than his father and grandfather did. While he admits he has no way of knowing if such a shift in ethos is widespread (“There are millions of men in this country who are doing the very things with their sons that my father tried to do with me and his father did with him”), he is, as are many fathers today, conscious of the harm caused by pushing traditionally gendered ideals on their children.

“I really do hope to win this,” he says. “I really hope for them to understand that they could be men while loving literature and music and art, that real men are merciful, that real men are kind, that real men show love towards those who are weaker, not scorn.”

For all his awareness of toxic masculinity now, Giraldi still feels regret that he didn’t realise sooner. “I wasted a lot of years in these issues and these problems, and in sorting out these tangles,” he says. “I wish I had got right down to what my life would become, I wish I could have been saved a lot of that tangle.”

  • The Hero’s Body by William Giraldi (No Exit Press, £9.99). To order a copy for £8.49, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.

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