Book Club: Bret Hart’s “Hitman” (Part 1: Stampede Days)

Posted on June 1, 2011

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“Unlike so many wrestlers with their various made up names and adopted personae, I was authentic — born Bret Hart into a wrestling world I couldn’t escape.”

 “Later in life I was one guy on the road, another at home, and yet another in the ring.  Which one is truly me?  They all are.”

“I am a survivor with a story to tell.”

Reading lines like these in the four page preface to “Hitman,” one might assume they’re about to dive into the most interesting book ever written.  Unfortunately, the four-page preface juggernaut is followed by one hundred and fifty four pages of excruciating wrestling business detail in “Part One: Stampede Wrestling,” which I will get to.  But first, more sweet, sweet preface:  

“I don’t think anyone can rightly dispute that I was a wrestler who put the art first and gave everything I had to the business — and to the fans.”

First of all, this is eerie because that’s pretty much exactly how I described Hart before reading the book.  And after writing “Hitman,” he could say the same thing again, only substituting the word “writer” for “wrestler” – (which I also said).

Bret Hart is trying SO hard to excel at the art of writing (and by writing over 150 pages about his pre-WWF days, he is literally giving everything to the fans).

Check out this line, also from the preface:

“I reached into my breast pocket and took out my notes, carefully unfolding them on the slippery, polished surface of the oak podium.”

By just the second page, I instantly knew Bret Hart wrote this book himself.  A professional author/ghostwriter would never write something like that.  The adjectives “breast” and “oak” add nothing interesting to this story (are these unusual types of pockets and podiums?); same with the somewhat redundant “slippery” and “polished,” (unless his notes were about to go sliding off everywhere); and why specify “surface of the” podium?  Is there any other component of a podium where one would set notes?  On the microphone of the podium?

But stuff like this just makes the book more endearing.  I love that he wrote this all himself and that he tried. so. hard.  I can just imagine him sitting there — in his four-walled office, staring at the very front-side of his white, cubic computer monitor — brow-furrowed — thinking, “How can I embellish this sentence to make it more artistic?”  (Just like he probably sat in the locker room all those years wondering, “How can I embellish these wrestling moves to make it more artistic?”)

His effort alone is beautiful, and it makes me feel guilty that I only paid $1.98 for this book.

And I still believe Hart was a genuine artist, tragically stuck in the wrong art form.  At one point he mentions, “It was around this time that I took up drawing cartoons.”  Then later, and more heartbreaking: “My friend Jim and I had a plan — we wanted to go to film school together and start a movie production company.”  I also underlined this unexpected gem: “In the evening we rode to the theater in a shiny black London cab and found Evita nothing short of awe-inspiring.”  And finally, according to the dust jacket (and what is perhaps the funnest fact of all fun facts), after retiring from wrestling, Bret Hart was in a Canadian touring company of Aladdin. Playing the Genie.

It kills me that this deep, creative soul ended up in wrestling, ultimately destroying his body with steroids and with… well, wrestling.  As he states, “Wrestling was never my dream, and all too often it was my nightmare.”  Later he talks about how he was hopeful when it seemed like his youngest brother Owen “would be the one Hart to escape (the wrestling business).”  If you know the Owen Hart story, this is Bret’s most tragic statement yet.

Sure, Hart isn’t David Eggers, but he is certainly cut from a different cloth than his colleagues.  He writes:

“The bus would pull over in the middle of nowhere for a piss stop, and that was a sight unto itself: men of all different sizes and colors pissing at the side of the road while gazing up at the northern lights.”

I guarantee Bret Hart was the only one on this bus finding the hidden grace and cross-cultural harmony in a piss stop.  Here’s my best guess as to what was going through the other wrestlers’ heads at this same moment:

“Penis make pee.”

“Pee feel good! Had to pee real bad.”

“Me hungry. Want food when I done pee.”

Again, though, maybe I’m just being stereotypical.  

Unfortunately, during “Part 1: Stampede Wrestling,” you’re less likely to find lines like that, and more likely to find paragraphs like this:  

“Tom had booked himself to work a tour for International Wrestling, which was the number three wrestling office in Japan.  Antonio Inoki’s New Japan was number two, and the number one company was All Japan, run by Giant Baba.  At the time, he had no way of knowing that Stu was working with New Japan to put together a jointly promoted card to take place in Calgary on August 17, 1979, which was to be broadcast in Japan as a TV special.”

Hart explains early on that he kept an extremely detailed audio diary starting in his early twenties. Apparently he has decided to include every last detail of those diaries in this book.  Is it important that this event was scheduled for ‘August 17th,’ for example?  No.  Much like the now legendary “slippery oak podium” sentence from page 2, there is so much needless detail in this paragraph and ones like it, which can be found on almost every other page.

Also, in my last post, I compared buying this book to committing to reading The Brothers Karamazov — and it has reminded me of reading Russian literature in that I have to keep flipping back chapters to keep all the characters straight.  “Wait, who is Bruce?  Was he one of Bret’s brothers?  Which brother?”  It also doesn’t help matters that there are 12 Hart children and that a lot of the characters also are sometimes referred to by their wrestling name.  “Tom?  Who is Tom?  Oh, right, Kid Dynamite.”  

Beneath all of this wrestling biz minutiae, though, is the fascinating idea that championship titles actually mean something to the wrestlers — in real life

For instance, when his friend Tom (aka Kid Dynamite, if you missed it) won (insert arbitrary, meaningless title), Hart writes: “Titles.  It would be wrong for anyone to think they don’t mean anything, that it’s all fake.  I knew, on that night, the title meant the world to Tom.”

This is insanity.  And on the surface, this would be akin to the Harlem Globetrotters breaking down in genuine tears each night while screaming, “Anything is possible!” after defeating the Washington Generals for the billionth time in a row.   

Then Hart later claims, “To a champion, the belt was more than real.”  What he’s boldly saying here is that winning a completely staged championship match was not just simply real;  it was more real than real.  And actually, he is (probably unintentionally, but perfectly) describing winning a pro-wrestling championship as “hyperreal.”

Hyperreality is a postmodern concept that is almost impossible to wrap your mind around because it’s definitions seem to be, by definition, contradictory or impossibilities: 

Scholar Albert Borgmann has elaborated:   “It is an artificial reality, to be sure, but it is not a poor substitute. It surpasses traditional and natural reality in brilliance, richness, and pliability.”  This would be the glass-half-full perspective.

Half-empty, the glass looks more like this (according to Baudrillard):

“The world we live in has been replaced by a copy world, where we seek simulated stimuli and nothing more.”

Yikes.

But think about Las Vegas casinos, especially Paris, or New York, New York.  Even their names are simply the exact names of the original places.  And many of us choose the shitty copy when planning our vacations?

Think about Disneyland’s “Main Street.”  

And think about pro-wrestling.  Compare any WWE match to an Olympic Greco-Roman match.  Does the former surpass the ‘traditional and natural reality’ of the latter in ‘brilliance, richness, and pliability?’ Absolutely.  Yet, is it still ‘simulated stimuli and nothing more?’  Absolutely.

At another point when Hart concluded an anecdote with, “…and that’s how I became the holder of not one but two title belts so early in my career,” I imagined him saying this to my face — and how awkward that would be.  What would I say in return?

“…Wow… that must’ve been sweet to… win… those.  You’d think one would need a lot more career experience before… winning… those titles.”  

A couple years ago my friend Andy was lucky enough to attend the WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony as a special guest.  He giddily reported back to me that behind the scenes he overheard several casual conversations between wrestling legends reminiscing about when one held this title and another held that title, the way you might expect George Foreman to speak to Evander Holyfield about the plain-real sport of boxing.  But Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers don’t stand around backstage at The Oscars (btw, I hope Carl Weathers still gets invited to the Oscars) talking about what a great match it was when they boxed to a draw in Rocky.

I think a few things have happened here:

1) I think pro-wrestling used to actually be real when it started in the early 1900’s.  Like, real real.  Like mixed martial arts is real now.  Just a couple of strong dudes trying to see who’s stronger.  But at some point, actual-wrestling slowly began to be replaced by this much more exciting, hyperreal copy of wrestling, and eventually the original was completely usurped.  However, no one stopped saying that it was real.  It wasn’t until relatively recently that it became no longer a question that it’s staged.  So instead of having annual awards for things like “Best Wrestling Stunt” and “Best Heel,” you get inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.  Again, this would be like inducting Clubber Lang into the boxing Hall of Fame.

2) For as popular as wrestling has become, its participants are mostly drawn from the same tiny subculture. Wrestling has largely been a family business:  Vince McMahon Sr. handing over the reins to Vince McMahon Jr is the most significant example.  There was also first Stu Hart — then Bret and Owen Hart.  Vern Gagne — then Greg Gagne.  Even The Rock’s dad was a pro-wrestler.  Also, most of the guys Hart mentions who were wrestling in the late 70’s and early 80s are still involved with wrestling now — constantly on the road, constantly working.  It’s a bubble.  These wrestlers exist in their own Truman Show.  Truman Burbank’s life was a hyperreal construction to the audience  — but to him, whatever was presented to him was real.  If wrestling is all you know, and your dad tells you that titles mean something, you’ll think they mean something.

3) Imagine spending your life getting smashed over the head with steel chairs while hiding a razorblade in your mouth so you can slice your scalp open mid-match.  The emotional and physical toll of that would cause anyone to instinctively convince himself that what he’s doing is real and has meaning.  This is why in interviews, if a wrestler is ever asked about wrestling being real or fake, they’ll say something defensive like, “Yeah?  Ask my doctor if my shattered kneecaps are fake.  Ask my dentist if I’m really missing these back teeth.  Ask my wife how many fake pain pills I take every morning.”  To them, it doesn’t get more real.

‘Part 1: Stampede Wrestling’  ends with his Stu Hart selling his territory to Vince McMahon Jr. and Bret Hart taking steroids for the first time before shipping off to wrestle for Vince in the WWF.  He reminisces: “I was unsure whether this was the beginning of the end, or the end of my beginning.”

In the preface, Bret calls Vince McMahon “the Grim Reaper of wrestling” before promising that: “There’s never been an accurate account of the history of pro-wrestling.  Since I’m no longer in the business, I’m in a position to tell the truth without fear of recrimination.”  Now that he’s gotten through the early details of his ‘Stampede Wrestling’ days, I’m incredibly excited to hear the rest of the story, which I feel is just beginning.

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Posted in: Pop Culture