December 1, 2013

The RoBeast Wrestling Book Reviews: Vince Russo - Forgiven / Linda Hogan - Wrestling the Hulk

This past summer, I decided it was finally time to get a NYC library card. I don't think there was a specific book I wanted to read, but I knew that I wanted to consume more about the wrestling industry than television and video were able to feed me. Over the last year I'd gotten deep into wrestling again (I guess this afflicts me every twenty years) and, like every other wrestling mark, thought about what it would be like to work for a wrestling company in some capacity.

"Make sure you get the cross in the shot."
Depending on whose book you pick up, it can either inspire or discourage that path. Vince Russo's Forgiven was a good introduction into the world of both. I didn't watch much wrestling during Russo's tenures at the top of WWF and WCW (the mid-90s to the early 00s), but those days and his polarizing impact have become infamous in wrestling history. Forgiven covers Russo's life from birth through the WWF Attitude Era and his departure from the company as the Monday Night Wars are heating up.
I was most interested Russo's route from superfan to WWF employee, and he was very clear about how he managed to make that happen--he simply wrote a letter to Linda McMahon. It's mind-boggling that in 1992, writing a letter to the CEO of a company was a legitimate way to get a foot in their door, but Vince Russo's gamble paid off. I only wish a copy of it was published in the book.

From there he finds himself getting promotion after promotion, amassing huge paychecks and interesting anecdotes about various wrestlers, while becoming completely overwhelmed by his workload. If Russo's story is to be believed (and for the most part, I see no reason not to believe it), he was basically writing Raw and Smackdown by himself every week. This was an era where scripted promos were becoming the norm, so that was certainly a lot of content to produce for television. Combined with the travel, he was guaranteed to see his family as much as the talent--almost never. Vince McMahon seems to have no interest in work-life balance (a theme that reoccurs in many of these wrestling books) which is a wake-up call to Russo. The book ends as Russo quits the company in '99 and jumps ship to WCW, which is addressed in a second book.
The biggest problem I had with the book was Russo's "commentary track." The manuscript was written in 2000, but between then and its publishing in 2005, Russo had a spiritual reawakening. This resulted in a dramatic revision of the book, and the content that did remain is subject to renewed moral insight every few pages. It's a unique device, but unlike on a DVD, you can't turn it off. I eventually found myself skipping any italicized paragraphed he added because they came off like broken records. Most amounted to either "I was a real idiot when I wrote that" or "I shouldn't have taken credit for that because it was actually God's handiwork." I'm personally not religious and don't believe in a God being behind everything that happens, so it felt like a distraction. Even for a reader that is religious, wouldn't they have recognized "God's work" without being prompted? I respect what Russo wanted to do with this writing technique, but it would have been more effective as a disclaimer in the prologue or as a final chapter with an interesting twist that makes you want to reread the book a second time.

The other section I found annoying was his odd tirade against affirmative action. Russo has effectively established his voice by this point in the narrative, but this waste of space seems like an attempt at emulating Howard Stern. (And I have no problem with Howard Stern, but let his shtick stay in his books.) It also seemed particularly hypocritical for Russo to act like he can't understand the impact of racial discrimination/favoritism in the workplace when in several other places throughout the book, he points out examples of Italian employees sticking together.
Despite these problems, I did enjoy the book because it gave great insight on the inner workings of a process that a biography from a wrestler may not have uncovered. It definitely made me interested in reading his second book, Rope Opera (2010), where the industry lines between backstage and on-screen become completely blurred. Still, I can't help but think of what this book may have looked like in its original form. My guess is a train wreck with even more Stern worship, so Russo likely made the right decision in overhauling it. He also wisely decided to change the original title Welcome to Bizarroland, though isn't it a bit arrogant to assume that he's already been Forgiven?

Against the boxing ring ropes, I guess.
The next book I read was Linda Hogan's autobiography Wrestling the Hulk. Actually, it's hard to even call this a Linda Hogan autobiography because 95% of it is about Hulk Hogan. I mean, the book opens with "Terry Gene Bollea, AKA Wrestler Hulk Hogan--born in Tampa, Florida...". You can't really turn back once you're on that path, can you?

Wrestling the Hulk is basically a description of Linda and Hulk's marital problems bookended by Linda's early life and her post-divorce relationship. The writing is very simple and has lots of exclamation points! There are even some recipes thrown in as filler. My guess is that writing this was a rushed experiment in personal therapy for Linda that someone convinced her could make a few bucks if it was published. And that's good for her, but I just don't think any wrestling fans were dying for this book.
I'll admit that I'm curious to hear about what it's like to be a wrestler's wife--having to deal with the physical separation, the financial ups and down, competing with fans and groupies--but I'm not positive that this alone is enough to fill an entire book. There are plenty of women married to wrestlers that have been in the business themselves who would make interesting biographical subjects, and I'm sure there are many women married to wrestlers that have compelling lives independent of their husbands, but Linda does not seem to fit into either of those categories. She started a family with Hulk Hogan, and then had a reality show about being in a family with Hulk Hogan. It sounds harsh, but there doesn't seem to be much more to it.
Honestly I was never much of a fan of Hulk's, so I have no problem with seeing him skewered in the ring or in print, but nobody can deny that he was the first superstar to be the face of mainstream wrestling in the 80s. He had a unique and controversial career, yet the majority of Linda's insights revolve around cheating and lawyers. Maybe that was a huge part of their lives, but it's just not colorful enough to sustain a compelling story. Yes, The Real American comes across as a shady jerk, but that should come as a surprise to no one who occasionally reads gossip headlines or wrestling insider papers.
That said, I'm not positive who the audience is here. Hulk Hogan fans probably won't believe Linda's claims. Hulk Hogan haters will be disappointed by the lack of major revelations (if there were any, I didn't really notice). Linda Hogan probably has friends that will pick it up, but I can't imagine she has many fans of her own. So who is left? Celebrity divorcees looking for someone to relate to and wrestling completists with a library card, I guess. I'll likely read a book by the Hulkster at some point too and I'm sayin' my prayers that it focuses on his wrestling career and not the breakup of his marriage.