Friday, March 03, 2006

A Good Story Spoiled (Almost)

Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS) can strike where you least expect it.

Or, to put it another way, ghost authors SUCK.

Now, to give some background, I have read a few of the pro wrestling autobiographies that have come out over the last few years. It started with Mick Foley's book Have a Nice Day, and progressed from there. At first I felt like I ought to snap up a copy of every wrestling book that came out. I bought books by The Rock, Diamond Dallas Page, Goldberg, Bret Hart...and then I stopped. What was the point? I thought it was a fad, so I was going to enjoy it while it lasted. But Goldberg? Why in the name of Strangler Lewis would I buy a book by Bill Goldberg? He had accomplished quite a bit in the short time that he had been around, but was his life story really worthy of a book?

I had to slow down. It was a serious waste of money. (Some would say that spending money on anything wrestling related is a waste, but I would bet that their homes are loaded with junk that no one else would spend money on, either.) People who had been famous for no more than a couple of years were releasing books -- in hardcover. I saved my money for books by the men who actually had stories to tell: Roddy Piper, Bobby Heenan, Ric Flair, Fred Blassie, and, most recently, Superstar Billy Graham.

Now I should mention that even when I read non-political literature, I keep my eyes open for any hint of bias. Mentions of politics where none are called for can ruin the whole narrative for me. Most of the above-mentioned books avoid politics like the plague, except for Flair's book, which includes a photograph of the Man with President Bush (41), and only briefly mentions Flair's Republican political affiliation without getting into any serious discussions. That was fine -- his politics are a part of his life, but not the focus of the book, so he touches on it and moves on. (Of course, it helps that his politics are the same as mine...)

Mick Foley's second book, Foley Is Good, nicely complemented his earlier work. Whereas Have a Nice Day was a pretty straightforward autobiography, the follow-up dealt with Foley's worldview and his experiences with being a first-time published author. Unlike almost every other wrestler-author, Foley actually wrote his own books. No one expects works of flawless prose from these men, so they or their employer (in most cases, World Wrestling Entertainment) will hire a co-author to put the grappler's thoughts and words down into a coherent, accessible form. Foley tried that with his first book, and soon learned that co-authors like to embellish other people's life stories in ludicrous fashion. He wanted to be honest with his fans, and made the effort to set everything down in his own words. The result was a pair of well-written, accessible non-fiction books that read as if Foley was speaking the words aloud.

The co-written -- or ghost-written -- wrestling autobiographies, by contrast, sound as if they were all written by the same author (in fact, some of them were) for a rather young target audience. That's understandable, but I prefer to read something that talks to me without talking down to me, which is why I enjoyed Mick Foley's books. Now, Foley did in fact get political in Foley Is Good, and sure enough, his politics don't exactly match mine, but at least I know that he was honestly representing himself and not allowing some outside party to put words in his mouth -- or on his page, as it were.

The latest wrestler book, the life story of Superstar Billy Graham, is one that I have been waiting years to read. When I started to follow "sports entertainment" back in 1977, the Superstar was the world heavyweight champion of the regional wrestling promotion that would eventually become WWE. Outspoken, cocky, and the most muscular wrestler anyone had seen up to that point, he defeated a Pittsburgh hometown hero, Bruno Sammartino, to win the title and held the honor for just ten months before dropping the belt and seemingly disappearing from sight for a few years. Graham then struggled through some bad gimmicks and finally reverted to his old style before retiring due to health problems in the late 1980s. He briefly resurfaced in the early 1990s to testify against his former employer at the infamous WWF steroid trials -- and, as he later admitted, lied through his teeth in order to try and win some kind of compensation from the WWF. It also turned out that he had been taking a lot more drugs than just steroids. After two hip replacements, two fused ankles, a liver transplant, and a personal religious revival, the Superstar not only became healthier than he had been in years, but actively sought a reconciliation with those former associates whom he had wronged in word and deed so many years earlier. As of two years ago, he is back on good terms with most of his old colleagues and has even done consulting work with the younger members of WWE's talent pool.

With a life like that, his story definitely needed to be told. A long-time admirer helped set up an official website for Superstar Billy Graham a few years ago, allowing his fans to keep up with the current goings-on of the former champ. As in other areas, I kept an eye open for any mention of politics on the site. The only thing that came up was during an online audio interview -- what we would call a podcast today -- where Superstar expressed amazement at not only seeing The Rock speak at the 2000 Republican National Convention, but also at The Rocks's taking a seat with the Bush family afterwards. The Rock even got a smile and a handshake from ex-President George H. W. Bush, whom Graham described as "one of my favorite ex-presidents". (Presumably he did not mean "ex-president" in the Jimmy Carter sense.) This remark suggested that Superstar may, in fact, be a Republican. However, he was not explicit about that. Elsewhere he said that he was more conservative than his public tie-dyed hippie image would imply, but "conservative" isn't necessarily indicative of one's politics. It wasn't that big of a concern for me anyway. I was just relieved that Graham didn't turn out to be a patchouli-stinking left-wing beatnik.

I'm not so sure about his co-author, one Keith Elliot Greenberg. This is where the aforementioned Bush Derangement Syndrome comes into play.

Although I am reading the book cover-to-cover, I just couldn't resist flipping ahead and checking out some of the anecdotes from different parts of Superstar Graham's career. In the story of his 1983 drug overdose in Baltimore, he tells of being taken into the emergency room at the same hospital where President Reagan was treated after being shot in 1981. Nothing political there, just an interesting trivial aside. Superstar also relates the story of how his mentor, Dr. Jerry Graham, caused a disturbance in a hotel bar in San Clemente, California, while then-President Nixon was in town (his hometown, I might add). FBI agents visited the Grahams' room and soon departed after being assured that the wrestlers would be on their way out of town first thing in the morning.

Then, out of nowhere, comes a gratuitous parenthetical crack about President Bush (43), something along the lines of how differently the hotel rowdiness incident would be handled by federal authorities if it had happened in Crawford, Texas, today. Huh?? Was this an attempt to make the story hip and relevant enough for younger readers to understand? It almost seemed to be missing something along the lines of "federal agencies didn't employ Gestapo-like tactics in those days". I smell the co-author's hand in this.

And it wasn't even the first BDS driven crack in the book. Earlier, Graham had discussed his youthful days as a Christian preacher. He mentions that he preached against "evil-doers" -- and, in parentheses, points out that this is a biblical term, not one coined by George W. Bush. Or did his co-author point this out? Again, here we see a gratuitous remark that seems designed to do nothing more than make a completely out-of-context slam against the president. It is also an example of the ghost writer's tendency to talk down to the book's audience, inasmuch as it appears to assume that the reader either never heard of the Bible, or is under the age of four, if he/she needs to be told that the term "evil-doers" existed before September 11, 2001.

But then, it turns out that Mr. Greenberg is indeed an experienced Children's Books author. For instance, in 1996 he wrote a book about a child being raised by a same-sex couple. You don't need to be critical or judgmental to realize that the book has political significance, based on its subject matter. A few years earlier he wrote a story for children about Bill and Hillary Clinton that I have never seen before, but which appears to be something of a hagiography. However, it does seem that, in true Clintonesque fashion, the then-President of the United States has at his side a woman who is not his wife:
Hey Bill! Who's the feisty looking redhead with you?

Anyway, getting back to my point, it seems like Superstar's co-author is a leftist who suffers from BDS, and as a result, my enjoyment of the book is suffering slightly. Perhaps I ought to cover up the silly asides with white correction tape, then go back and read my edited version. I might even forget that there is a second person who worked on the book.

Thus far, I have not yet reached the part of the book where Superstar wins the world title. I would love, love, LOVE it if he tells us that his championship reign was the best thing to happen to this country during the Carter years, but I'm not holding my breath.

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