Modern Nostalgia Freaks

The name Bruno Sammartino might not mean much to you. Nor Ernie “The Big Cat” Ladd. Or even Ivan Putski, "The Polish Hammer." But to me, these men were gods. They were professional wrestlers of the late 1970s and every Saturday at midnight I'd watch them on channel nine in New York as they threw each other from rope to turnbuckle, turnbuckle to rope and back again. They were my ten-year-old obsession. At twelve I turned to Van Halen. At thirteen to girls. But even now, comfortable with the knowledge that wrestling is fake, that it was all a lark, that no one was really a heel or a babyface, I'm not sure I could keep it together if I saw Mr. Sammartino, with his tightly-permed hair and seventeen inch biceps, come walking down the street towards me. I might just start shouting 'Bruno! Bruno! Bruno!,' until he bodyslammed me to the concrete.

The point is this: I understand the power of a childhood fascination. We all do. Try try try, but we rarely outrun them for good. The ones that got us in the deep place keep after us. And we keep after them. Authors Chuck Klosterman, Bill Simmons and Steve Almond each had a very specific youthful enthusiasm and not one of them has given up the chase. All three have written smart, funny memoirs that are part pop-culture catalogue, part personal history, part social commentary. I read each book in a day, and about a week apart and now they are all swirling around my head, as one big early thirties road trip. Klosterman, in 'Killing Yourself To Live,” and Almond in “Candy Freak,” spend most of their time in cars and airport. Simmons, whose “Now I Can Die In Peace,” is a best-seller, puts in a lot of couch time watching television, but none of these men live in the present; they are, rather, traveling in the aether of old familial conflicts, father and son chats, late teenage nights trying to quiet their thoughts so they can fall asleep in their parent's houses.

To survive those nights, Klosterman turned to rock and roll, Almond to candy, Simmons to sports, particularly the Boston Red Sox. I dig each of those things (well, the Red Sox not so much). But more than that, I dig the level of knowledge and commitment these fellas bring to the page. What's really compelling about all three of these guys is how smart they are. And that despite their intelligence, cultural acuity, wicked one-liners, they are, in a sense, mired.

Klosterman drives from graveyard to graveyard looking for the places his favorite rock stars died. Almond goes from candy factory to candy factory, searching for elusive sweet tastes to lift his spirit. Simmons watches baseball and chronicles the Red Sox run to the World Series on his Sports Guys World website. Simmons' book is the funniest, and reading it you get the sense that he is the closest to being an actual grown-up. He has a family, a great job, an enormous following. He has taken on responsibility, and so has clearly traveled some emotional distance. Yet the vehicle of his transformation was his childhood love: sports. He has built a substantial world, but it is a world that conforms to the same ideal of himself that he had as a fifteen year old. Is that a victory, or some sort of surrender? I'm not sure. After all, as a filmmaker who's most notable movie is about a card game, I'm kind of in the same boat. Neither Almond nor Klosterman have families, and both of their books center around recent break ups, and the realization that it might be time to stop blaming the girls. Both guys are obviously still grappling, still hoping to move forward without leaving what they love most about themselves behind.

There's something bigger to this I think. Something very particular to this moment in time. These guys are all as wired as can be, blogging from the road, text-messaging, constantly on the cell-phone. But they are mostly physically alone. These books depict solo pursuits--eating a candy bar, watching a ball game, listening to your favorite band as you drive down the highway by yourself. But as these three men write about these intimate, lonely moments, indeed by the simple act of writing about these moment, they are inviting community. It is as if Simmons, Klosteman and Almond know there are more like them out there, more slightly fractured, slightly obsessed people, but they don't know where they are. So they have determined that this--writing a book, setting up a website, hitting the road, might be the best way to find them.

As the new year approaches, it's easy to recommend all three of these books. I say buy them as a present to yourself. Read 'em in a bunch, and see if you don't find yourself reaching back to your favorite movie, or record, or friend or whatever it is that kept you waking up on those cold winter mornings when you had to go to school, but really just wanted to pull the covers back over your head and hide.