Mick Foley Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark
Gregory Kirschling
July 25, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The year’s unlikeliest debut novelist greets visitors to his Long Island home in worn red Winnie-the-Pooh sweatpants and a matching flannel shirt, with a black leather fanny pack tugging at his waist. His mop of thick brown hair hides the spot where his right ear was torn off during a 1994 wrestling match against an ogre named Vader, while a bushy goatee does a good job of obstructing his trademark missing front teeth. As a former WWE superstar, he is famous for enduring excruciating pain over 2,000 career tangles in the ring, yet when the 310-pound, ever-smiling father of four descends into his basement’s ”Christmas Room” — his beloved safe haven, adorned with yuletide decor year-round — it’s to discuss literature until the kids get home from school.

”I was sitting in this room reading ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ and I literally put the book down and said out loud, ‘Is it me, or is absolutely nothing happening in this book?”’ says Mick Foley, 38, a.k.a. the leather-masked Mankind. ”I thought, Hey, if I could write a narrator who was that clear, but also have a story where things happen, then I might have an effective work.”

His first stab at such a work, a grim yet earnest coming-of-age novel called ”Tietam Brown,” came out this month. Foley, who retired from pro wrestling in 2000, so enjoyed writing his own memoirs — published as 1999’s ”Have a Nice Day!” and 2001’s ”Foley Is Good,” both of them No. 1 best-sellers — that he started considering fiction. How hard could it be? Inspired by Stephen King’s how-to ”On Writing,” he scrawled a longhand draft of ”Tietam” in six weeks, caffeinating himself through the wee hours with two-liter Diet Cokes. Then his agent shopped it, and, to the astonishment of the entire book universe, the classiest publisher in the biz, Knopf, home to Toni Morrison and John Updike, picked up ”Tietam.”

His no-nonsense editor, Victoria Wilson, asserts she’d never heard of him. ”The only thing I care about is the writing, and he’s a real writer.” She hopes ”real readers,” not just wrestling fans, will find the book.

Like ”Catcher,” ”Tietam” is narrated by a teen who sounds like a teen (”I’m perpetually 17 years old,” jokes Foley). And true to its author’s intention, things happen: Guileless Andy Brown loses an ear, romances a cheerleader, and battles and bonds with his hellacious father, Tietam. Befitting both Foley’s family-man demeanor (”I could easily go a year without using the F-word”) and his bloody history as a wrestler (”The only match anyone ever wants to know about is the one where I ended up with a tooth in my nose”), the book veers between unusual sweetness and bone-shuddering violence. ”It’s not that big a departure for me to write,” Foley insists, as 9-year-old Noelle, just home from school, vies for Dad’s attention with headstands on the Christmas Room carpet. ”In wrestling we always considered ourselves storytellers in the ring, even though to the general public we were just guys in tights pretending to fight.”

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