Sons may be destined to disappoint their fathers, no matter how much they crave recognition and attention from them or how much they strive to please them. Such stories are the stuff of many iconic works of Western literature, from Virgil and Homer to David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen.
Novelist William Giraldi's muscular, sometimes meandering and poignant memoir, The Hero's Body, joins a growing list of recent father-son memoirs, revealing his insights about this pivotal relationship through the experience of growing up and carving out his manhood in a small New Jersey town.
After an early bout with meningitis in Manville, New Jersey—"a town straight from the blue notes of a Springsteen song"—Giraldi turns to weightlifting in his uncle's basement, not only to regain his physical strength but also to find his way into masculinity. "[I]t's one thing to grow up in this blue collar zip code . . . and another to be raised by men for whom masculinity was not just a way of life but a sacral creed."
In the first part of the book, Giraldi chronicles his sweaty and glorious days in the Edge, a gym where he moves beyond mere weightlifting and enters the cultish world of bodybuilding, which operates with its own creed. Giraldi eventually takes second place in a bodybuilding contest, after which his father seals a bond simply by saying, "you did good."
Shortly after the Edge closes unexpectedly, Giraldi shuts himself off from the world and immerses himself in literature, but then the unexpected happens when his father is killed in a motorcycle crash at the age of 47. Giraldi slides through his grief by searching for answers he knows he won't find: "I want to say that his death was unavoidable . . . nobody or nothing could have saved my father . . . but in my most rational, regretful moments I consider that I or others might have saved him had we only tried; it's just that the trying would have seemed such a transgression against the familial code and such a betrayal of his joy."
Giraldi's robust and elegant writing delves in a vigorously poetic fashion into the heroic efforts men make to sculpt their bodies—either through bodybuilding or riding motorcycles—and discovers that the truly heroic is being fully and convincingly yourself.