Chin, Michael. Stories Wrestling Can Tell. Cowboy Jamboree Press, 2023.
Review by Guillermo Rebollo Gil
Michael Chin’s Stories Wrestling Can Tell is all heart. And all Hart! The heart is evident in the author’s tender, and sincere attempt at thinking through the memories that best encapsulate his relationship with his father and grandfather, as well as with his wife and son, and how these relationships have been mediated by a passion for professional wrestling. The Hart is because famed in-ring technician, “the excellence of execution,” Brett “Hitman” Hart is one of the author’s three favorite wrestlers. And because he got to shake his hand one time. And because, like The Hitman, Chin’s personal story is very much about working on oneself, stressing over the details, getting them right, and never ever going through the motions.
For the uninitiated, this book is a primer on what professional wrestling truly is: a rich and complex performative representation of the ever-changing landscape of American life. For lifelong fans, like the author and this reviewer, Chin’s work is a way to pay wrestlers back for the many memories they’ve given us, yes, but also because their dedication to such a peculiar art form has offered us a keen interpretative frame by which to better understand our own experiences.
The book is organized as a series of short essays about and around beloved World Wrestling Entertainment Superstars from the 80s to today. Together these essays tell the story of the grandson of a Chinese immigrant who died believing in wrestling’s fixed finishes, and even as he did not speak the language of his adopted home, would speak wrestling with his English-speaking grandson. Chin writes: “The greatest overlap in our vocabularies always came down to wrestlers’ names” (34-35). This tender tone is sustained throughout the book, and it does the writing well, as Chin deftly manages to mirror the careful, coordinated movement of performers in the ring. Now, this by no means implies that the text glosses over the more controversial and/or problematic elements of wrestling as a performance form and a cultural production (i.e., its representations of race and gender, the real-life risks involved in staged fights). But it does allow the author to highlight those foundational elements of pro wrestling that are missed or misunderstood by the mainstream. Chief among these is that the most memorable stories that wrestling tells revolve not around silly slights and swift, over-the-top payback, but around instances of profound emotional harm, extended periods of estrangement, and eventual reparation and reconciliation. As Chin states “wrestling is nothing if not insular” (79), its logic and rules only plausible within the confines of the squared circle. But those same ridiculous rules can help prepare onlookers for real life challenges. Chin writes: “To be a lifelong wrestling fan is to grow comfortable with death” (146).
It will happen to readers—as it did to this reviewer—that Chin’s own journey from childhood to parenthood, though inevitably his, is markedly similar to many of ours. The magic of wrestling, like the magic of good writing, is that in sticking to the specifics of a character or situation, it gestures to that which is shared. I, for one, feel with and for Chin as he is figuring out what to show his toddler son of this violent world on screen. And I am with him as well as he brings to mind the loving dedication of his father who, though he would not splurge on big pay-per-view events, would take his son to local shows, would tape late night programs for him, would wait patiently on the phone for the chance of winning a free screening of Wrestlemania 9. The underlying question is: what do you, as a parent, do when the unspoken language of love and dedication—the language that has informed and sustained your life— is imbedded in images and narratives of seemingly gratuitous violence? The author does not answer this question directly, but chances are his son already has his own top three favorite wrestlers.
Stories Wrestling Can Tell fits neatly in what we could call a new, refreshing corpus of writing on and around professional wrestling, that breaks with the tried and tired tropes of the form as container for all that is wrong with American masculinity or American society right now. It is a perfect companion text to W. Todd Kaneko’s poetry book The Dead Wrestler Elegies, Brian Oliu’s collection of short prose Body Drop and Collete Arrand’s collection of poems and comics, Hold Me Gorilla Monsoon (see Marion Wrenn’s article for more on Arrand’s engagement with wrestling poetics and kayfabe). All the books foreground not what some, from the outside, may presume that pro wrestling feeds upon and regurgitates of the American collective imagination. Rather, these books highlight, question and build upon that which is central to the action in the ring: a soft touch between colliding bodies, consent, communication and cooperation between combatants, and a shared belief from all involved that just because we’re enemies today, that does not mean the we can’t team up tomorrow.