Imagine, if you will, ”Dr.” Hunter S. Thompson gobbling quantities of vitamins and shooting up anabolic steroids and equine muscle stimulants. The literary result might well resemble Samuel Wilson Fussell’s Muscle, an intensely personal yet coolly ironic memoir of four years spent pumping iron in pursuit of a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s. Fear and Self-Loathing at the Gymnasium, or something like that.
The son of not one but two professors of English, and a graduate of Oxford University, Fussell had returned to New York in 1983 before entering graduate school at Yale, when his health inexplicably began to fail. At 6’4” and a ”cadaverous” 170 pounds, he found himself a victim of what his friends laughingly called ”urban dissonance.” But to Fussell, it was more than a joke. ”The problem, you see, was New York. It terrified me.” Instead of moving to Des Moines, or at least the Jersey suburbs, Fussell headed for the gym. Putting down Paradise Lost, he picked up muscle mags — the kind that feature sides of beef posing in G-strings. Bodybuilding became his way of life.
Fussell’s parents were horrified. ”I could see from the look in [my mother’s] eyes,” he writes with characteristically caustic wit, ”that her worst fears were realized. All that was missing was a rifle and the President’s travel itinerary.” His father eventually quit talking to him altogether. Friends wondered if he had gone mad.
Like so many other Americans in the grip of monomania, Fussell soon gravitated to Southern California. There he fell in with a crowd of ”health fascists and gym bunnies” for whom bodybuilding was a veritable creed — ”half Puritanism, half P.T. Barnum.” Self-absorbed or not, Fussell retained a wicked satirical edge. Muscle is full of characters like Xandra, a spandex-clad exercise instructor with an aversion to cellulite: ”I hate fat people, like to the max, don’t you? I mean they’re just so lazy and things. Like, if you don’t have respect for your body, guy, then what do you have? Like, whenever I pass some load, I don’t know whether to stick a finger down my throat or theirs.”
For bodybuilders themselves, however, Fussell demonstrates more pity than contempt. Like addicts of all kinds, most bring crippled egos to the gym. What’s more, he’s utterly remorseless about his own metamorphosis from a self-pitying nerd to steroid-engorged bully. ”I told myself,” he writes, ”that taking steroids was a Faustian bargain…. I was my own alchemist, I said, transmuting the base metal of myself, the dross, into gold. To the diseased, there is no pyrite.”
As Fussell portrays them, the physical consequences of competitive bodybuilding are truly ghastly. By the time he succeeded in gaining 80 pounds and turning himself into a reasonable facsimile of Schwarzenegger, he could bench press 405 pounds, but he couldn’t run 20 yards without gasping for air and had a resting pulse rate of 120 — twice that of a reasonably fit man his age. Having regained his sanity, he’s written a powerful, funny, and disturbing book, a classic piece of Americana. A