Muscle: Confessions Of An Unlikely Bodybuider

Samuel Wilson Fussell/Poseidon Press/252 pp.

Leon J. Podles

In 1983 Sam Fussell graduated from Oxford and took a publishing job in Manhattan before his planned enrollment in American Studies at Yale. This tall, thin young man, the son of literary critic and war writer Paul Fussell, had been raised in Princeton, attended Lawrenceville and Oxford, and had been sheltered from urban American life. His size (6'4"), skinniness, and academic de­mea nor made him a target for all the nuts and con men that infest Manhattan. He was literally scared shitless. He came down with chronic diarrhea, as well as pleurisy. His parents had just divorced and he had nowhere to go. He was tired of being hurt physically and emotionally by life. He decided to take up bodybuilding.


It was quite a change from Oxford and Princeton. Ever the academic, he researched the subject in the bodybuilding magazines before he took the plunge. The gym at the Y was not what he expected. It was full of homosexuals and maniacs busy constructing shells to protect themselves from reality. He built himself up to 257 pounds and was able to bench-press 405. He left his publishing job (to avoid getting fired for throwing a coworker through a door) and lived off a small inheritance. He moved to California, studied under the professionals, and became a trainer in a gym. He filled himself with steroids. He entered shows, and fortunately lost. Per­ haps it was the disappointment that brought him to his senses. He realized that he had started at too late an age (26) ever to have a "great body," and decided to quit in order to return to the family tradition of scribbling.


During his bodybuilding episode, his mother tried to comfort herself by telling her friends that it was a form of art. She was right. It is a type of art: Mannerism. The ideal male figures in Greek and modern art bear little resemblance to the bodybuilder's. The antecedents of bodybuilding are to be found in the Hellenistic and Renaissance Mannerism that displays a taste for the distorted, the exaggerated, and the perverse, which sets in when perfection cloys. The bodybuilder, with his bulging biceps and starved waist, is to the normal athletic male body what Pontormo is to Raphael. The bodybuilders are conscious of their artistic precursors. The poses they use in bodybuilding shows are derived from famous Mannerist statues, such as the Hellenistic Farnese Hercules and Michelangelo's David.


In writing this book, Sam Fussell recasts his experience with a self-conscious artistry reminiscent of his father's. Paul Fussell's books on war put forth the persona of The Hero without parading his own courage: he admits to near-cowardice during his battlefield experience in France in 1944. He joined ROTC because he didn't want to display his soft body in gym. He ended up in a rifle platoon, saw the men he led blown apart, and was himself severely wounded. He shows himself as the hero who leaves normal life for the world of combat, there to wrestle with death and attain a wisdom and a sympathy denied to ordinary men. He is like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, and Beowulf.

Throughout his book, Sam Fussell uses the metaphor of bodybuilding as military action. He speaks of men being "in the trenches too long," and of a buttock scarred from steroid injections as looking like an aerial photograph of Ypres. Like the soldier in combat, Sam Fussell attains something of wisdom. He has a sense of irony, and realizes the ersatz nature of this heroism, but he does come to realize the folly of building shells as protection from pain, and is able to return to normal life.


Sam Fussell places his escapade in the context of self-invention, the particularly American belief that you can make yourself whatever you want to be. He wanted to be a musclebound bully, so he made himself one. The Princeton background did not fit into this persona, so he invented a new one. When asked about his father:


I couldn't very well pipe up and say, "Oh, he's a literary and cultural critic, perhaps you're familiar with his latest—it's just out in paper you know, The Rhetorical World of Augustan Humanism." No, that wouldn't do. I had to find something stronger, something nobler.

     "He's dead," I said.
     "Was he a lifter?" Nimrod asked suspiciously, pausing with his fork at his mouth.
I was in over my head, but I couldn't stop now.
      "He certainly was," I lied.  "His name was Tug. He was so massive, they buried him in a piano case and lowered the casket into the grave by crane."


The transformation of Jimmy Gatz into Jay Gatsby looms in the background. But like William Henry Harrison with his nonexistent log cabin or Ben Franklin in London with his coonskin cap, Sam Fussell engages in reverse social climbing. Like his father, who wrote keenly on American social distinctions in Class, he enjoys slumming. And he turns self-invention into an art form; he concocts a bizarre background to fit his bizarre body, so that the Mannerist reconstruction of self can be complete.


Bodybuilding is a profound warping of sexual identity. "Health fascists," Fussell calls the gym rats. But although fascist, bodybuilding is not Nazi: blacks and others whom Hitler would have regarded as Untermenschen are successful and admired in the field. Bodybuilding bears the sweaty aroma of Mussolini's hypermasculine ideology and of the artistic game that Futurists like Marinetti made of war and masculinity. Bodybuilders quote slogans reminiscent of that cripple and weakling Nietzsche: "That which doesn't kill you makes you stronger"; "Only the strong survive"; "No kindness forgotten, no transgression forgiven." They wear hats that say "Pray for War." When his mother came to visit him in the bunker apartment he had found, he was wearing

military fatigues camouflaged to look like tree bark, spitshined black combat boots, [and] a T-shirt which read "Respect my spirit, for our spirits are one." ... A cardboard cutout of Arnold with loincloth and sword as Conan the Barbarian stood against one wall. ... I could see from the look in her eyes that her worst fears were realized. All that was missing was a rifle and the President's travel itinerary.

But bodybuilding is also narcissistic and effeminate. Steroid use made Sam Fussell impotent. He accepted that; sexuality, after all, made him vulnerable, and he wanted to be cut off from all other human beings. Homosexuality is prevalent among bodybuilders, and it is, oddly enough, an effeminate homosexuality. At the Y he encountered "a man dressed in a sing let and what ap­pea red to be a tutu." The professional bodybuilder Paul Harris "revealed his marriage to his 'husband,' male model Rod Jackson, and the joy they shared in their 'children,' two dogs and a macaw named Barney." Bodybuilders give their bodies the attention that women give theirs, and do not show the gen­er al lack of consciousness of bodily appearance that normal men have. Fussell also links bodybuilding with pornography, which is an introverted sexuality.

What he does not point out is that bodybuilding is yet another symptom of America's failure to find a way to help its boys become men. All other societies have ways of turning boys in­ to men: puberty rituals, military se r­vice, or the hard and dangerous business of learning a father's trade. Paul Fussell, like most middle-class parents, tried to protect his son from the seamy side of life; but there is something in the young male personality that needs to descend into danger before it can mature. Young men turn to all sorts of dangers—crime, drugs, skydiving, risky sex, bodybuilding—to go through the experience that other societies provide in a structured way, under the guidance of responsible adult males. Feminists yelp about the disabilities that young women labor under; I suggest they visit a prison, or an AIDS ward, or perhaps a military cemetery, and reflect on what happens to young men in our world.