The Dead Wrestler Elegies by W. Todd Kaneko
Curbside Splendor Publishing, 2014; 216 pp
Reviewed by Michael LEvan
W. Todd Kaneko’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies is a book about professional wrestling and the toll it has taken on men like Strangler Lewis and Dick the Bruiser, Owen Hart and Chris Benoit as they gave themselves to entertain millions. It is a book about a man whose wife abandoned him and their son. A book about men who are broken by what they love most in the world. About men who must still find a way to live.
We see how connected a welder in the Pacific Northwest’s plane yards and wrestlers with personas as colorful as their spandex costumes are in “Killer Kowalski and the Cauliflower Ear.” The boy asks his father how wrestlers shed fake blood and whether the part of the ear Walter Kowalski bit from Yukon Eric could be reattached. But the father ignores his son, much like the wrestler with cauliflower ear, “a gnarled badge for men who live by / the fist, who die when they can no longer hear / their names in mouths of women and children.” When matters turn weightier—first when “I asked my father about my mother” and then as “I asked my father / about his life before my mother / left us, about those things a man needs / to know about his father before he dies”—the man can do nothing more than nod, “pretending he couldn’t hear.”
Sports are a vehicle for fathers and sons to mean something as they say nothing, for them to bond as they root for their heroes. Even though their teams may not win, at least there was hope for victory because the outcome hadn’t been predetermined. But this father knows the truth: “[he] tried telling me wrestling was fake— / a pageantry of blood and teeth for old men / and wide-eyed children.” He understands that his idols and his son’s can’t be like “the Polish strongman Zbyszko / [who] double-crossed everyone… and held Munn / down and forced the referee to count three” and took the world championship from Big Wayne Munn instead of conceding defeat.
The father struggles to have faith in the world after what has been taken from them. We see this in “Stan Stasiak was World Champion for Nine Days” when he mentions wistfully, “That old guy was once on top.” And also in “Flowers for Adrian Adonis” when the boy finds secret photos of his mother and later sees:
My father, alone
in his underpants after a double shift
at the plane yards, those photos
gripped in one hand, his forehead in
Grief may have him, but the father has his son, and they have this physical, beautifully orchestrated, and (at times) over-the-top world to share. They have the magic of men like Andre the Giant who
was a village.
Then he became a dragon.
Then he became an army.
Then he became a king.
Now, he is the wind…
with a mouthful of shark’s teeth. He devoured
mortal men ten-at-a-time, laughed and spit
their bones into our living rooms…
was a Frenchman.
Then he became an ogre.
Then he became a movie star.
Now, he is the constellations.
All of them. (“Selected Legends of Andre the Giant”)
He may have not provided his son with everything the boy deserved, but as he doubts their relationship “because he wanted something to talk about with me / those nights we sat together watching wrestling,” he is reminded that phony doesn’t necessarily mean untrue. Their common passion can still be the best gift he could have given the boy:
My father proclaim[s]
that professional wrestling is fake,
Rikidozan explain[s] that authenticity
doesn’t matter when a man
needs something to believe in. (“Rikidozan was Big in Japan”)