Review: American Wrestling: 1989

Jenkins, Charlie. American Wrestling: 1989. Self-published. 
Review by J. Rocky Colavito

Professional wrestling has a varied history as a focus for fiction, with much of the interest in it as a source of setting, plot, and characters coming within the past decade. Authors such as Christa Faust, (Hoodtown), Stephen Cooper (Blood Soaked Wrestling), Lucas Mangum (Blade Job), Ryan Harding (Pandemonium), and this reviewer (A Tale From the Road) have all turned the squared circle into a venue for darkness, gore, and extreme violence. Similarly, graphic novels involving the world of professional wrestling have risen in profile, with The Crimson Cage (John Lees), The Gimmick (Joanne Starer), and Over the Ropes (Jay Sandlin) among many others. Popular studies of wrestling and wrestlers have gained a foothold with the development of the Professional Wrestling Studies Association, and streaming services have offered both documentary (A & E Biographies, Dark Side of the Ring, and Wrestlers) and fictional series (Heels, GLOW) in support of the movement of professional wrestling from the fringe into the mainstream.

 It is in this tumult that we find Charlie Jenkins’ American Wrestling: 1989, a sprawling work with multiple story lines set at the beginnings of Vince McMahon’s conquest of the territories. While ambitious in scope and filled with interesting characters as individuals (certainly the strongest part of the novel), the book unfortunately collapses under the weight of too many story lines that leave the reader confused and searching for a stronger sinew to tie everything together. No less than six major characters are paired off in relationships, with several others taking the lead in multiple sub plots that resemble those of Starz series Heels. Peach State Wrestling, the struggling independent promotion trying to maintain a presence in an era and region under attack from WWF and The Pantheon of Wrestling (an upstart regional promotion with designs on competing with WWF), are the setting for the soap opera that unfolds throughout the story.

The plot incorporates the can-do spirit of the “lets put on a show” films of the thirties and forties, the domestic travails afflicting marriages and relationships, and the constant struggle between a life of the artist as opposed to the life of the “real world.” We are witness to divorce, drug and emotional abuse, emotional manipulation, and things more familiar to wrestling sagas: the veteran with a dark secret who keeps getting drawn back into the life, poaching of high performing talent by larger promotions, the struggles of those with ambition who are on the bottom, and the inexorable degradation of those on top who fall victim to their own demons. As noted, these plots and subplots give the reader a huge challenge. The book flits among these storylines, often without adequate transition. One chapter provides a glimpse into the lives of two characters who are “locals” in the Peach State community, with the man having less ambition than the woman; the next puts us in a bedroom full of drugs that an established star in Pantheon and his valet/wife share as they chart the course of their own demise. It is these instances, and others, that compromise the plot line of the novel. Which is a shame given the quality of the characters that Jenkins provides.

Our main protagonist is Larry Wohlgethen, a successful pool salesman who harbors a dark secret involving a past mishap in the ring. On a whim, he purchases a dilapidated building in an effort to revive professional wrestling in the small Georgia town of Serviceville. His daughter Katie, a bright highschooler, is along for the ride owing to her active imagination that she turns toward creating characters to populate Larry’s ring. Larry’s wife, Selma, has had enough of the Walter Mittyesque pursuit of making a go of the promotion, and wants a divorce. Larry’s motley crew of talent includes Big Al Washington, an outsized hero who is the ostensible talent and locker room leader, and Kissable Kyle Rogers, a cook at a local barbecue restaurant who is in a relationship with one of the servers, Vanessa Davis. Kyle is the rising star who doesn’t know just how good he is, but is not wholly invested in wrestling. Vanessa is invested, and dreams of using a ring career to get out of Serviceville and back to something bigger. The rest of the talent hits all the usual pro wrestling figures: a group of proud rednecks with a female cousin, a woman saddled with an offensive stereotypical gimmick, and an odd pairing of heels whose gimmick is that of power-mad police officers.  Into this mix are thrown Ren Takahashi, an undergraduate at a regional directional college attempting to gain an entrée into the world of professional wrestling, which he manages because of his writing ability, and Carlo and Lady Jane, established stars in Pantheon where Carlo plays a monster known as Gill and Lady Jane is his valet. Their world crumbles as Ren’s ascends, but each finds their level as individual weaknesses undermine everyone. Ren is socially inept, and finds his efforts to form relationships stymied at every turn. Kyle is pragmatic to a fault, and does not match Vanessa’s drive. Larry’s can-do attitude pushes him to take chances and ask more and more of his talent. Katie is willing to put aside her future in order to inherit her father’s promotion. Carlo and Lady Jane’s arrogance proves to be their downfall that, unsurprisingly, ends in tragedy.

The sheer amount of content in this work makes it difficult to adequately discuss in a thousand words. The book is worth a look for completeness’s sake, and is a deviation from many of the pulpier and horrific wrestling work out there. It is, however, not a light read given the Faulkneresque plotting and number of characters. Readers will be pleased to see the verisimilitude of the setting (even if it is familiar to those who watch Heels), and elements of late eighties wrestling (including walk on appearances by recognizable figures from the WWF) make for nice bingo type games. I give the work a conditional approval for the characters and the painstaking effort Jenkins takes to capture the time and place. Just realize that, in wrestling parlance, it is a wild battle royal where there’s a ton of combatants and storylines at work, and it is challenging to make sense out of all of them.

J. Rocky Colavito is Professor at Butler University. 

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