Book Review Revue
Books About Mexican Wrestlers, Chatty Lesbians, and Adventuresome
by Heather Levi
(Duke University) $22.95.
Americans find the wrestlers of Mexican lucha libre, with their gaudy masks and secret identities, both fascinating and cheesy. But to many Mexicans, they're celebrities, real-
life superheroes, and even, at times, political figures. Heather Levi studied for a year and a half with some of the most respected lucha-libre coaches in the industry, and she took it very seriously: "Often, during that time, I idly contemplated 'going native,' maybe staying long enough to get my wrestling license and then... but being an anthropologist seemed more practical and (sadly) more lucrative." You might think from that quote that you were about to read a dramatic and bizarre memoir of Levi's months training to become a luchador.
You'd be wrong; this is a strictly anthropological report from a university press, with nearly 50 pages of citations and endnotes. Because it's an academic title, Levi very nearly leaves herself and her adventures out of the text entirely. This can be a little disappointing if you expected a more personal narrative told with empathy and literary flair. And in fact the first few chapters are pretty dry. This is to be expected; most anthropological writing simply isn't for general audiences. But Levi has a singular ability to condense a story to its most basic facts and transform it into a kind of haiku. Take this passage, about the origins of modern lucha libre:
In 1936, a Mexican wrestler named Jesus Velasquez started wrestling as El Murciélago (The Bat) Velasquez. Wearing a leather mask and an elaborate cape, he would carry a bag into the ring from which he would release a swirl of bats.
You could write a thousand pages on that luchador alone—the "elaborate cape"! the "swirl of bats"!—and still barely scratch the surface of a man insane enough to carry a sack of live bats into a wrestling ring. Better, then, to just explain the facts and move on. Other stories are surprising, like that of the shoemaker who became the preeminent lucha-libre mask designer in Mexico, and still others are heartbreaking, like this paragraph about the greatest, most popular luchador of all time:
That night, in front of what must have been millions of viewers, El Santo removed his mask. For the first time since 1942, he revealed his face to his public and let them know his "real" name: Rodolfo Guzman Huerta. Two days later, while doing his escape act in the Teatro Blanquita, he suffered a fatal heart attack... El Santo was waked and buried with his mask in place, as he requested in his will.
At first, it feels as though the academic nature of the text is something to be overcome—any anthropological work with a photo marked "FIGURE 4: Fishman stalks around the ring at Arena Caracol" can't be completely unreadable, after all—but in the end, it becomes much more than that. Levi lays the entire world of lucha libre at the reader's feet, from the adulation of the crowd to the metallic smell of blood in the ring, and the act of creativity, installing the personal narrative, is the reader's job. This is excellent reportage on an endlessly fascinating subject, and Levi should be commended for standing back and letting the luchadores take center stage.
by Alison Bechdel
(Houghton Mifflin) $25.
While by no means complete, this is a fairly comprehensive collection of 25 years' worth of Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For comics. Now that Bechdel's success as a memoirist, with Fun Home, has pushed the weekly series off to indefinite hiatus, it seems a particularly meaningful time to reassess the value of the strip. On the book's dust jacket, Bechdel refers to Dykes as "half op-ed column and half endless serialized Victorian novel." It's a statement that at once overstates and undersells the comics in this book.
Though at the time Bechdel may have just been using the characters as mouthpieces for her political views, the fact that she comments on every major LGBT issue of the last quartercentury makes Dykes a personal and important gay-history textbook, one that chronicles the (rare) advances and (mostly) heartbreak of the movement as it happened. Subplots like the cast's gradual—and often painfully reluctant—acceptance of drag kings and transsexuals pretty much mimic the way these issues have progressed in the real world. And the slow decline and ultimate shuttering of Madwimmin Books (the women's bookshop where many of the main characters worked) under the stress of chain bookstores and online retailers should be painfully familiar to anyone, gay or straight, who's been paying attention since the 1990s.
But when the strips are all collected like this—and characters hook up, break up, cheat on one another, and gossip about all of it all the time—the book feels unsatisfying without a proper ending. With a good and proper send-off, Dykes would actually feel like a very long, and surprisingly well-focused, Victorian novel. As Bechdel moves into creating book-length work, perhaps the most important thing she could do to grow and develop her new artistic endeavors would be to close this chapter of her life. Consigning the characters to limbo for an indefinite amount of time is one of the most undignified fates Dykes could suffer.
by L. Ron Hubbard
(Galaxy Press) $9.95 each.
For the past few months, ads for these books have been on city buses everywhere, thanks to a plot by the Church of Scientology to bring all of L. Ron Hubbard's pulp fiction produced for young men's adventure magazines—150 short stories and novellas from the 1920s through the '40s—back into print. The first wave of these books includes pirate novels, science fiction, and westerns.
Many reviewers—myself included—have extolled the glories of pulp fiction, and this series provides a good opportunity to make something perfectly clear: Most pulp fiction is awful crap that was cranked out in order to make a fast buck. Hubbard's fiction is the worst of that dreck.
Here is a passage from Spy Killer:
Yang stood up. He looked like some animated dark mountain. His arms and legs were as big as tree trunks, and his head sat oddly small on his great shoulders. But his head, on closer inspection, proved twice as large as an ordinary man's. Yang weighed three hundred and fifty pounds, and none of it was fat.
It's clear that most of what Hubbard was doing was stringing clichés into different combinations and switching the scenery to fit the genre. The heroes are blocks of wood wearing lustrous, glossy toupees and the villains are hand-wringing miscreants or, worse, inscrutable, evil Asians. If Galaxy Press actually goes through with its plan, it will produce 80 separate paperback novels full of Hubbard's atrocious pulp writing—one volume a month for the next six years. This could be the worst thing to happen to paper since the Commies started burning books.