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BOOK REVIEW: BRET HART - MY REAL LIFE IN THE CARTOON WORLD OF WRESTLING

By Jeff McGinnis on 2007-10-20 11:12:34
In 1969, baseball player Jim Bouton wrote a book entitled "Ball Four." Both an ongoing diary of his season and a memoir of a life in the game, Bouton's book would go on to light a firestorm of controversy over its depiction of the life of sports stars. Though by today's standards "Ball Four"'s content is relatively tame, at the time its frank portrayal of the day-to-day realities of living in such an occupation ignited debate both inside and outside baseball. Some argued that Bouton had no business divulging what went on behind closed doors, and that he was ruining the game for fans by revealing the lifestyle of its players. Others, however, adored Bouton's book and called it a masterpiece, one which showed that baseball players were not superhuman, but real people with real problems, who had good points and bad ones.
 
Bret Hart's new book, "Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling" may inspire similar debate among fans and critics alike. While the market has been flooded with wrestling autobiographies in the years since the publication of Mick Foley's classic "Have a Nice Day," none have probably summed up so frankly the day-to-day realities of living in wrestling quite like Hart's book. An amazingly detailed and meticulously crafted tome, running over 550 pages, it is a richly detailed story which follows Bret's career from childhood to the day Stu Hart passed away in 2003. No noteworthy moment is glossed over, no issue left uncommented on, and the sheer volume of material makes the book a can't-miss for any fan of the sport.
 
But there will be controversy here, too, as "Hitman" is also one of the most brutally frank books ever about the realities of living on the road as a wrestler. Hart does not gloss over the questions of drugs, alcohol, infidelity, politics - you name it, and so does he. "It's not my intention to take needless jabs at those who made the journey with me, but I'll pull no punches, either," Hart writes in his preface. And he is certainly true to his word: Before the book is done, he admits to his own steroid use during his career, frankly discusses the rampant drug use by his fellow wrestlers, and is surprisingly blunt in admitting to numerous extra-marital affairs during his time on the road.
 
The story, of course, begins in the famous Hart house in Calgary, as Bret describes growing up within a wrestling culture and under the stern and watchful gaze of his father, Stu. The early chapters paint a picture of growing up a Hart, stuck in the middle of 12 kids with a strict but loving father, and a home life that was anything but Ozzie and Harriet. As elsewhere in the book, Bret is very blunt in admitting that his childhood was far from being all wine and roses, from problems between his parents to never-ending money issues as his father tried to keep his wrestling promotion, Stampede Wrestling, afloat.
 
Bret describes his first, tentative steps into wrestling, more inspired by his brothers' financial success than by any burning passion for the art form. Far from being prodded by his father to follow in the family footsteps, he says his dad actually encouraged him to focus on his amateur career instead of becoming a pro. His early days, training at the feet of Katsui Adachi and Kazuo Sakurada, soon gave way to the trial-by-fire of grueling matches with the young Tom Billington (Dynamite Kid) and an extended tour of Puerto Rico.
 
Every step of Bret's career - from his start as a young star of his father's promotion to his first days with the WWF and beyond - is meticulously described in remarkable detail in the book. By his own account, Hart kept an audio diary during his career, giving him a wealth of archival material from which to draw from, and it shows in the amazing thoroughness with which Bret documents his life both in and outside wrestling. There are only a couple small factual inaccuracies that only the most obsessive fan would even notice.
 
In addition, Bret does not shy away from describing his private life in similar fashion, crafting an extremely strained portrait of his first marriage where his wife, Julie, seemed to be eternally in a state of planning to leave him, even as she mothered his four children. This was exasperated by Bret's admitted vice - women. He would have frequent sexual encounters on the road over the course of his career, and Hart's tone in describing this habit is not exactly one of regret, though he does admit to feeling quite guilty at the time. "When all was said and done, my fondness for women kept me out of trouble. It may have even saved my life, when you consider how many wrestlers died from their drug and alcohol addictions."
 
But Bret does not shy away from his own experiences with such issues, discussing his own steroid use beginning in the 1980s, which he claims to have undertaken solely at the start to help deal with injury problems. His portrait of the 1980's WWF locker room lining up to get their little bags from Dr. Zahorian is a chilling one, especially in light of WWE's most recent scandals. He also details much of the recreational drug usage in the sport, naming quite a few names in the process. There will probably be backlash against Hart for his bluntness in dealing with this subject matter, especially coming as it does in the midst of wrestling's biggest steroid controversy since the early 1990s.
 
Hart is also very open in discussing his opinions of many of his fellow performers, both positive and negative, though it never comes across as particularly vindictive. Given the negative comments made about Hart in recent years by both Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair (particularly in Flair's book, "To Be the Man"), Hart's comments criticizing them as workers seem positively restrained by comparison. There was far more venom in the article on Bret's website responding to Flair's book than will be found in "Hitman," though he does make plain his less-than-stellar opinion of Flair as a wrestler.
 
An interesting portrait also emerges of Vince McMahon, as Bret describes the eternally evolving relationship between the two of them over the years, leading up to the single most talked-about moment in wrestling history: the Montreal Screwjob, which gets its own chapter. Bret certainly has more than a few scathing things to say about McMahon over the course of the book, though in recent years their relationship has become ever-so-slightly more cordial, primarily because Vince owns the rights to all the footage of Bret's career, and Bret understands that his legacy as a performer is in Vinces hands.
 
As for the author himself, Bret comes across as an individual you can generally sympathize with, who takes himself and his legacy quite seriously, almost to a fault. He is never at a loss to toot his own horn when it comes to his abilities and ideas (he frequently describes his execution of certain moves as "perfect," and is quite complimentary of his own storytelling ability in general), but given the career which he contributed to the business, a slight lack of humility is certainly tolerable. He is also quick to compliment and praise other workers from his era, as well, even Shawn Michaels, whose talent Bret never denies even as he denounces everything else that Shawn stands for.
 
In the end, "Hitman" will stand the test of time as one of the definitive wrestling biographies. Though it is not as purely entertaining and engaging as Mick Foley's books, as a document and story of one man's life and career, it is as meticulous and complete as a fan could ever hope for. The tale it tells is certainly not always (or even usually) a happy one, but it is always fascinating and compulsively readable. "Hitman" is currently available in Canada, with a wider release in the United States and the United Kingdom to follow in 2008, and it quickly goes on the short list of books that all wrestling fans owe it to themselves to read.

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