Book Article

Body Double

Sam Fussel's memoir of becoming a bodybuilder -- The author of ''Muscle'' discusses his transformation from shy academic to a bronzed iron man

Samuel Wilson Fussell claims to be mortified about exposing himself for the photo. ''If I strip,'' Fussell fusses, ''what will I do for my next book?'' But don't let the apparent modesty fool you. The author, who has submitted to an interview in a blue suit so conservative it verges on the flashy, takes great pleasure in the contradictions between his flamboyant and reclusive sides. ''I love to shock people,'' Fussell admits. ''If they weren't shockable anymore, then the world would be a pretty boring place.''

A practiced exhibitionist, Fussell's favorite way of shocking people has been to remake himself in a series of contradictory guises; his most startling transfiguration by far has been of his own body. Six years ago, as a shy 26-year-old academic (an Oxford graduate, he is the son of social historian Paul Fussell and food writer Betty Fussell), he discovered bodybuilding and transformed himself from a frail, 170-pound, 6'4'' scholar to a steroid-enhanced, 257-pound muscle man. The people most shaken by this first metamorphosis were his parents. ''My son had always had a Gothic imagination,'' his mother wrote in a magazine article. ''But who could have foreseen for that little boy a transformation as bizarre as this?''

Betty Fussell needn't have worried. Two years ago, her son quit bodybuilding to make an even bigger spectacle of himself in print (''I always knew there was a book in bodybuilding,'' he says). And now the ex-lit major flexes his intellect in Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, a just-published book (read the review) calculated to send shock waves through iron-pumping circles. ''I think this book will scandalize people because I am the first person to tell the truth [about the sport],'' he says.

In other words, don't be fooled by the book's sedate cover. A portrait of the artist as a young iron casualty, Muscle is a gruesome exposé. ''It's intended to be a cautionary tale,'' Fussell readily says. ''If you want to read a Dale Carnegie success book, read Arnold [Schwarzenegger's autobiography].''

In Muscle, Fussell describes his journey into the inner circles of the gym world — the barf-fests, starvation diets, and grueling workouts — in terms worthy of Dante's Inferno. He also touches on some risky subjects in American sports, including homosexuality and steroid use. But most of all Fussell, who used the chemicals himself in his obsessive quest to become ''the best,'' attempts to describe the bodybuilder's warped outlook as a metaphor for ''the hidden motivations that we all have. Life is a matter of theater and presentation and how much you choose to expose to the world of yourself,'' he says.

''We are all bodybuilders in a sense,'' he adds. ''It's just that some of us don't go to the gym.''

Actually, Fussell, who has ''slimmed down'' to a mere 220 pounds, still works out, but now only between chapters. Hard at work on his second book (a crime novel set in the 1930s), he spends most of his time holed up in a cramped Philadelphia apartment borrowed from his father — a haphazardly furnished space that has become an odd showcase for both literary and bodybuilding trophies. On the crowded shelves, Paul Fussell's books (The Great War and Modern Memory, Thank God for the Atom Bomb) compete for space with his son's mementos: two gaudy winner's statues from the Mr. Golden Valley and Mr. San Gabriel Valley contests, an embossed scorpion carapace in a glass case, and several pieces from young Fussell's medieval armor collection.

In the midst of all this, author Sam Fussell sits, poised self-consciously on an upright chair. Speaking in a measured voice that sounds almost like a stage whisper, he acts remarkably as though he too is on display. In bodybuilding, the term for his pose is ''standing relaxed'' — flexing all your muscles while maintaining the appearance of natural posture.

Besides his intriguing surface, then, how much does Fussell actually expose of himself? After listening to his articulate but totally evasive responses for more than an hour, you sense there is a hidden method to his exhibitionist madness. (Asked about his parents' reaction to his bodybuilding, the author insists they were ''supportive.'') Indeed, he seems to flaunt his engaging veneer as a way of concealing himself. Think of it in terms of his collection of armor. Displayed on the cocktail table, the elaborate steel pieces are both engagingly decorative and formidably protective. But oddly, the tarnished chest pieces and helmets inspire Fussell's only revealing statement.

''It's a bodybuilder's thing — I was an armadillo's carapace of armor,'' he says. ''Any sort of relationship between myself and another person became impossible. It allowed me to touch other people and not be touched myself.''

If people weren't shockable anymore, you get the impression that bodybuilder/author/armor collector Samuel Wilson Fussell would feel truly, irrevocably exposed.

Originally posted Mar 15, 1991 Published in issue #57 Mar 15, 1991 Order article reprints