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For most of his life, Sam Fussell was pretty similar to any of a half dozen people I know.  The son of two English professors (we read his Dad's book, The Great War and Modern Memory, for an English class at Colgate), he attended Lawrenceville and Oxford, then took a year off to work at a publishing house in Manhattan while planning on going on to get his advanced degree and claim his birthright in the Academy.  But then a funny thing happened; though he stood 6'4", he weighed in at a skeletal 170 pounds, and he found himself completely overwhelmed and terrified by the brutality of early 80's New York City.  Riding the hostility filled subways, passing the homeless, walking the mean streets, it all scared the bejeezus out of him, until:

    I was ducking for cover, as usual, when it happened.  This time it was a man with a crowbar and a
    taxi medallion, worth $50,000 at the going rate, which he had just ripped off the hood of a New
    York taxi cab.  Spotting me as a likely customer, he advanced upon me, brandishing the crowbar
    for emphasis.  I quickly sought shelter in the nearest building, which turned out to be the New York
    landmark, The Strand bookstore.  It was an appropriate refuge--I'd used books all my life for
    protection.  I caught my breath and, as was my custom, made my way to the autobiography section
    (I frequently found myself there wondering how they coped with life.)

    It was in this aisle, in this store, in September of 1984, that I finally caught "the Disease".  Here it
    was I came across Arnold: Education of a Bodybuilder by Arnold Schwarzenegger.  A glimpse of
    the cover told me all I needed to know.  There he stood on a mountain top in Southern California,
    every muscle bulging to the world as he flexed and smiled and posed.  Just the expression on his
    face indicated that nothing could disturb this man.  A victim?  Not bloody likely.

    And that's where it hit me, right there in The Strand.  I knew it in an instant, my prayers were
    answered.  What if I made myself a walking billboard of invulnerability like Arnold?  Why couldn't I
    use muscles as insurance, as certain indemnity amidst the uncertainty of urban strife?  Arnold had
    used iron to his obvious advantage, why couldn't I?  And if the price was high, as a quick glance at
    the tortured faces in training photos suggested, well, wouldn't four hours a day of private pain be
    worth a lifetime of public safety?

    Nothing else had worked for me.  The Harvard Club tie and The New York Society Library card
    had done nothing to ward off attack.  As for Tae Kwon Do, one had to actually engage in street
    combat to use it.  But muscles--big, loud muscles--well, they were something else altogether.
    Surely a quick appraisal of my new gargantuan body would guarantee me immunity, even from the
    criminally insane.  And the beauty of it all lay in the probable fact that I would never be called upon
    actually to use these muscles.  I could remain a coward and no one would ever know!

    It was that simple at first--at least, so I thought.  By making myself larger than life, I might make
    myself a little less frail, a little less assailable when it comes down to it, a little less human.  In the
    beginning I planned to use bodybuilding purely as a system of self-defense.  It wasn't until later, 80
    muscle-crammed pounds later, that I learned to use it as my principal method of assault.

So begins a long, strange, genuinely hilarious trip from the Upper East Side to California's Golden Valley Physique Classic IX  (Heavyweight Division).  What starts out as a way to protect himself, ends in drug addled obsession as Fussell sinks further and further into the netherworld of serious body building.  By the time of the final competition that he enters, Fussell is so weakened by diet that his friends have to carry his magnificent form around as if he were a baby, he is a quivering mass of steroid altered psychoses and he hasn't brushed his teeth in weeks because his Crest has too high a level of sodium content.  Along the way to this bizarre condition, he meets an astounding cast of characters and finds a subculture that few of us ever imagined.

In her book The Orchid Thief (see Orrin's review), Susan Orlean wrote about the obsessive world of orchid collectors, while holding that obsession at arm's length.  Samuel Fussell's book is an honest, self aware, account of what it's like to surrender to such an obsession and allow it to take control of your life and, in his case, allow it to reshape your body and your mind.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

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Comments:

If you are into hitting the gym and gaining size then you'll appreciate this book full of bizzare characters, funny events and occasionally shocking ones too. I don't think it's a warning although it is somewhat motivational. Mainly it is this guys 4 year story and it's a brilliant read told just like as if he were telling you it over a few beers. Fantastic!

- Luke Watson

- Jul-26-2006, 04:26

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Your review is right on target. Interesting, if cautionary tale. the message is clear enough: stay away from steroids. This is what killed Lyle Alzado, the football player. Some of these younger guys just don't get it, they think all they have to do to make the coward within disappear is take maga doses of steroids, build up that body with muscle mass, and bingo, presto: Superman. That's not how it works. I would love to see more people read this book for the lessons it contains. Valuable & well done. Please keep in mind that steroids stunt growth and can cause cancer.

- K.A.

- Feb-13-2004, 09:12

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i loved this book...im really getting into working out and all that good stuff. this book really got me motivated and i wish there were more books like it!!! i really loved it!

- jake kennedy

- Oct-21-2003, 22:35

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