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Eric Johnson is a performer in the Midwest American Wrestling Association; his ludicrously misspelled stage name (even he hates it) is “Jiggolo.” While he earns a certain modest measure of notoriety from his profession—his matches are sometimes televised—he’s hardly a celebrity, and his income is fairly modest as well. He hitches a ride with a group of other wrestlers headed to a match in Richmond, Virginia. On the way, they stop at a greasy spoon for a late-night meal deep in the hinterlands of West Virginia. When a petulant teen fan gropes Julie Sandusky, a female wrestler, the incident turns into a brutal fight with the restaurant’s staff. One wrestler, Burt Knox, is hit in the head with a glass coffee pot with ferocious force, leaving his life imperiled. Lester Goode, a local and a participant in the fight against the wrestlers, is a murderer who has recently been released from prison; he grimly realizes that he cannot afford more trouble, a predicament chillingly portrayed by the author. He explains his plight to his teenage cousin, Mark, the person who molested Julie: “These people have seen us, they know our names, and there ain’t no way around that.” Lester ties up the wrestlers at gun point and brings them to his mobile home deep in the woods, with murder being his obvious intent; he’s a career criminal and no stranger to killing. The league’s premier wrestler, Brick Lamar, a former elite Marine soldier, is dispatched by the wrestling association to find the missing grapplers; meanwhile, Eric and his peers desperately try to figure out a way to escape.

Sangiao-Parga distills, with unflinching and gritty realism, the unglamorous reality of professional wrestlers—in this telling, their private lives are as uninspiring as their sport is fake. Their world is a sad microcosm of the world at large, infected by a retrograde chauvinism against women and a closed-minded bias against homosexuality. In one tender scene, artfully captured by the author, Ricky Chalmers, one of the wrestlers, comforts Burt, his secret romantic partner, in a poignant moment that shocks Eric. The author is at his best fleshing out his impressively complex characters—even Lester is much more than a violent goon; he is devoted to his cousin, Mark, and he hopes to rescue him from a life that is all but doomed by fate. This paradoxical mix of nihilistic brutality and familial compassion is made plausible by the author. He also furnishes a remarkable justification for why these wrestlers continue to perform with no prospect of advancement: “The truth was, even if the money was mostly shit and they had no hopes of climbing any higher, none of them could really give up that feeling you got when you had the crowd going for you.” This is a gripping novel, intelligent and moving.


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