on July 21, 2003
Sam Fussell comes from a family of intellectuals (his father is the author/professor Paul Fussell) and it is not surprising that he appeared to be following in their footsteps. He graduated from Oxford University and then proceeded to get a job in New York before entering graduate school. What is surprising is the detour that he took. Living in New York and being accosted by street people and witnessing acts of violence had the rather predictable and understandable effect of instilling him with some fear; however, his fear appeared to be more consuming than in most people. Sam Fussell sought some way in which to conquer the fear. He considered the martial arts but nixed that idea after reasoning that he would actually have to fight in order to employ them. After happening into a bookstore the answer presented itself. Bodybuilding could create a hulking Samuel Fussell that anyone would think twice about before assaulting. The current Sam Fussell was ectomorphic at 6'4" and 170 or a 175 pounds and clearly not someone who intimidated steet toughs.
Being a bookish sort, he purchased bodybuilding books and magazines before eventually getting a YMCA membership. He then started out using only the machines while marvelling at "Sweet Pea" and the other muscleheads who grunted, groaned and cursed their way through set after set of freeweight exercises. Diligently doing his circuit training routine and increasing his caloric consumption allowed Sam to make respectable progress, even gaining the attention of the behemoths on the other side of the gym. The story of his becoming a freeweight practitioner, initiated into the clique of weight-lifters at the Y and being taught such things as how to walk like a builder makes for entertaining reading.
Even after achieving a body weight of 200 pounds, he finds that strangers are not properly cowed. This serves to fuel his desire to get massive. He brings large quantities of food to work and eats every few hours. His desk is filled with protein powder and his attitude to co-workers is less than cordial at times. No perceived slight goes unpunished with the new Sam Fussell. After one too many of such incidents, Sam is out of a job. He's alienated his non-bodybuilding friends and flabbergasted his parents. Sam becomes increasingly enmeshed in the bodybuilding lifestyle and even goes so far as to use a small inheritance to support himself.
Sam eventually moves to the mecca of bodybuilding ---- southern California. There he meets still more interesting characters and begins, inevitably, using anabolic steroids. The photographic record of his transformation is astounding. He competes in a bench pressing competition and a bodybuilding contest. The harrowing tale of his pre-contest diet (e.g. not using Crest toothpaste because it's sodium content is too high) makes it easy to see why Sam came to his senses and stopped forthwith.
Being ectomorphic like Sam and desiring to gain weight, I could sympathize with some of his motivation. On the other hand, his fear is another matter entirely. Granted, I don't live in NYC but I think it's pretty obvious that he had other issues besides being lanky. I have worked out, gained weight and made decent progress. I think he was on a similar path but no amount of bulk would tamp his fears. I would have liked to see Sam come to his senses and eventually lift weights again but in a more healthful and reasonable manner but much like the alcoholic who knows he must never drink again, Sam abandons weight training completely. I suppose this is only to be expected from someone who chose to lift weights not so much to build his body as to ease his mind.
Samuel Fussell writes in an engaging manner and it's easy to get lost in this book. You need not be knowledgeable about the world of muscle to find this book engrossing. "Muscle" is not a bodybuilding how-to book. He does discuss particular routines, exercises and nutrition but those who think that it's primary aim is instructional in nature have missed the point. Lifting weights can be healthy and rewarding. Like anything, taken to an extreme it can be quite the opposite. Perhaps owing to my own bias, I don't view it as an anti-weightlifting book. The book may however be viewed as anti-professional bodybuilding. Professional bodybuilders are genetically above average and steroid drug users and this has been the case since at least the 1960s. There are an increasing number of natural contests but at the elite, big-money earning level drugs are omnipresent.
For those who wish to lift weights, increase strength and add muscle, read this book as an entertaining and yet cautionary tale. Then go get a checkup, buy a good weight lifting book (e.g. author Stuart McRobert), eat correctly, get plenty of rest and be persistent. You will see progress physically. If, however, you are expecting healing for an unquiet mind, perhaps this book will show you the importance of looking elsewhere.
on March 26, 2001
I loved this book since reading it for the first time one year ago. Since then I have re-read it several times, and never get tired of the story.
It is easy to relate to the fears that drove Sam to take up bodybuilding. What is interesting is how those fears turned a well-bred, well-education, intelligent man in his mid-20s, into a an anti-social outcast among his friends and family.
Bodybuilding is a great sport, and lifting weights is a healthy activity. But because of the author's psychological issues, he lets it become an unhealthy obsession. The author quits his job and takes up residence in a window-less concrete basement while training full-time New York.
He comes to California, and associates with other obsessed with bodybuilding. These people include his training partner/steroid-dealer, a father-son team who train full-time at the gym while live out of their car, and a female bodybuilder with more testosterone in her body than most men. Sam shoots himself up with steroids, bullies people on the street, and competes in local competitions.
In the end, his quick departure from the sport is consistent with someone who came to the sport only because he was trying to find himself. And after bodybuilding didn't provide all of life's answers to Sam's satisfaction, he moved on.
on July 27, 1999
Finally, someone who isn't afraid of telling the truth about what it takes to make it in bodybuilding. Fussell remains honest throughout the whole book and keeps nothing back. This is a must read and an eye-opener for anyone who wants to know what bodybuilders go through to win. I really appreciate the honesty that Fussell brings to bodybuilding through this book. He takes a no-holds barred approach...he tells it like it is, I ought to know I am a former competitor myself. He is right on! If you are a bodybuilder and you read this book...it may scare you to see the truth, you know the truth but you are in denial...it's true and I too, can indentify with 100% of Fussell's feelings. Does anyone know where Fussell is now? This book is an easy read and you'll finish it in no time. Order it!
on March 5, 2001
An articulate, often funny look at the fanatical world of competitive bodybuilding. This account rings true. Anyone who is familiar with the bodybuilding world will instantly recognize the fanatical, driven, bizarre cast of gym rats in this book. Mostly young men who devote every waking moment and thought to packing muscle onto their bodies. They are willing to do whatever it takes to win. Steroid abuse is the norm. There are many bodybuilders who work out for the health benefits, would never take steriods, and keep their workouts in perspective. They are not represented in this book. Disillusioned, Fussell stops working out at the end of the book and never deals with the sane, common sense approach to weight training. But common sense and sanity do not sell many books and the fact that these men are steroid-driven fanatics is a large part of what makes this account so interesting. This book offers an accurate look into that world.
on February 2, 2001
I'll admit it is no great literary achievement, but MUSCLE is a wonderful book that is so honest it's unbelievable. I'm no bodybuilder, but I do go to the the gym several times a week and this book is both an inspiration and a warning. It is the story of one man's quest to feel safe in NYC and how he finds that haven.
Once he discovers the gym, and sees the benefits (both physical and mental) of working out, Fussell sets a greater goal: to become a professional bodybuilder. And he stops at nothing to attain it, giving up everything--including his health. Utterly amazing are the before and after photos in the middle!
I love this book. I read it twice. My old roomate read it twice--so did the guy he borrowed it from. I even gave a copy to my brother to inspire him after recovering from a hernia operation. He doesn't read much, but he liked the pictures.
Why do like it so much? I don't know why. I can relate to it I suppose. Like Fussell, I work in book publishing and got into weight training like he did (but not as extreme). The beauty of this book -- besides the humor and shocking things the characters do -- is that it is a true account on a subject you never hear much about.
Seriously, MUSCLE is a quick, entertaining, interesting, excellent read. You don't have to be into bodybuilding to enjoy it.
on June 27, 2005
After reading Dean Karnazes' book "Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner," I was interested in reading what others had to say about it. In amongst the plethora of reviews, I came across someone that compared Dean's journey to a man named Samuel W. Fussell and his journey from nothingness (physically) to an assumed greatness (a rather large and chiseled amateur bodybuilder). Samuel (The author of "Muscle") and Dean share a similar trait, and that is, an absolute, undiluted passion for their work. Dean a little less, I suppose, but none-the-less, both books, and especially "Muscle" completely pulled me in.
Samuel will show you the scary side of bodybuilding. He'll challenge you to ask yourself questions about what's important. Certainly, most of us know friends and family are more important than hammering out four hours at the gym every day in hopes of getting larger and larger and larger. Samuel tells us smartly what it's like to push it all aside and focus on me me me, all for me me me.
When I arrived at the last chapter in this book I had to put it down and let the already finished chapters of the book marinade in my head a little longer before I read about how it all ended. His bodybuilding passion ends abruptly, alright, but even more magnificent than the journey he embarked on over a span of four solid years of diet, lifting, sleep, diet, lifting, sleep, were the right-on observations he made about the bodybuilding scene in general. While at work, before I was able to finish the last chapter, I could literally taste the excitement to get home and ram through to the end of the book.
"Muscle" is a completely engrossing novel, and I have to admit that I'm saddened that it was published in 91 and that I cannot find any more novels written by the author. Some of the reviews written about the book say he's not that great of a writer. I can't disagree more with those statements. I feel he does a fabulous job. I found myself reaching for the dictionary very often.
I read about "Muscle" many, many years ago in an article on Fitness, but had never found it for sale, and was pleased when it was released on Kindle. I read it over the course of a few hours, and it was a very involving story, but throughout I found myself wondering at how much of it was true, and how much had been exaggerated or simplified for storytelling effect. The characters he encounters in the book are caricatures, not portraits, and he readily admits that he changed names and details throughout.
I've never been a bodybuilder, and my own fitness levels have waxed and waned over the years, but I did go through a period where I got hooked on going to the gym and strove to lift heavier and heavier weights. My motivation, like most others, was the knowledge that I should be fitter than I was, but I did see the powerlifters and bodybuilders who strove for something beyond mere fitness, for reasons known only to them.
Fussell says that he turned to bodybuilding out of feelings of fear and vulnerability while walking the streets of New York. For reasons he explores in the book, but not quite getting to the real reason - SPOILER ALERT - he gave it up after he competed in his first bodybuilding events.
I don't want to get all Chicken Soup for the Soul or anything, but after an initial read, it seems to me that he did what he did not because of what he felt he lacked on the outside, but for a sense of manliness, for lack of a better of word, that he didn't feel on the inside. He embraced the "bodybuilder identity" and all of its outward hypermasculinity, but eventually realized its hollowness, and when the reality of competition didn't live up to his expectations, he dropped it completely. That's growth, I suppose, but the author's bio page now makes a point of him being a subsistence hunter in Montana, which seems to be another way of seeking to actualize and announce one's manhood. Why the need to call out "the author is now a subsistence hunter", rather than simply saying "the author lives in Montana", unless one is trying to make an impression?
At any rate, it is a good read, and an interesting read, but not the classic I was hoping for. Its reputation is a bit overstated.
on July 11, 2005
Never was a subtitle more appropriate. Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder explains perfectly what this book is about. Sam Fussell's parents are scholars, literary critics. He grew up in Princeton, and went to college in Oxford. Nothing in his past could have hinted to his future. His transformation started in NYC. Sam was intimidated by the street characters, the thugs and the mentally unstable, and even though he was tall (6'4"), he was also a string bean. The book has photos to prove it. So he joined the YMCA, started to lift weights, and bodybuilding became his obsession. He made a 180° turn and abandoned "civilization" (more or less, that's what his family and friends thought), and focused completely on bodybuilding, much to the chagrin of his parents.
The book is great in that it gives a sneak peek into the lifestyle of bodybuilding. I had no idea of what was involved. I knew it had to do with a lot of pumping iron and steroids, but that's nothing. Sam goes into great details as to his daily life, his diet, his training, his "supplements". Equally fascinating is the entire culture, more like a "cult", that surrounds bodybuilding, and his descriptions of Vinnie, Nimrod, Sweetpea, and all his other buddies on both coasts.
Parallel to the account of his life as a bodybuilder, Sam goes deep into his reasons for pursuing such a career. I can't remember a more honest memoir. He certainly gets to the bottom of his fears, his insecurities, and describes his muscles as a sort of armor that would protect him not from muggers, but from life itself. He was afraid of living. Not to go into too much psychoanalysis, but I can see how some of Sam's insecurities may have been coming from an emotionally unavailable father. When Sam finally quits bodybuilding and tells his father that he's going to write a memoir, Paul Fussell replies: "All is forgiven, literature is bigger than people". What a thing to say. What is to forgive? The fact that he didn't become a lawyer, like you had expected?
The book has some wonderful photos of Sam, before and after his transformation. The photos are very necessary to understand some of the competition poses. They are also easy on the eyes. What a hunkalicious bod. And what a dreamy face! Quite a complete package, smart, articulate, sensitive, handsome and ripped.
on July 29, 1999
I wanted to learn a little more about what makes bodybuilders tick. If the motive is basically sexual, then why are there straight bodybuilders? The first part of Fussell's book is a little confusing as to just what the motives were in Fussell's case. If we are to take him at face value, it would seem he was suffering from an acute case of paranoia, an extreme bully-kicks-sand-in-my-face Charles Atlas syndrome. I think the real reason is mentioned in passing only later on in the book, after he's been training seriously for awhile -- the place where he imagines he's driving through the city and encountering nothing but green lights, green, green, green. His bodybuilding quest, I think, was an extreme reaction to being cooped up in a gray, threatening, meaningless world; he thought he had found a way, his unique way, of escaping all this, of breaking through. The prospect of unobstructed progress is addictive and one will do anything, even make a Faustian pact, to keep it going. Unfortunately, Sam had to discover that this was impossible -- to use the Devil's favorite phrase, non datur.
Fussell's experience might seem to be a rather special example, but it generalizes to the world at large, which is one of the reasons why his book is important. Although he portrays bodybuilding as a ridiculous caricature, as a microcosm somewhere well off the deep end of society, it is actually more representative than may first appear -- it applies to all those who strive immoderately. This has of course been known for a long time ("moderation in all things"), but the message bears repeating. There will always be souls incapable of moderation, and they end up destroying themselves; in the final analysis it's what they want, and preferable to being in *this* world. These people are rebels, and they pay the price. Sam had to decide for himself if the price was worth it, decided it wasn't, and looked back upon his experience with horror as a "disease".
This book is beautifully and concisely written. Often in just a few words, Fussell conveys a scene with merciless camera-like accuracy. Given his obvious talent as a writer, one eagerly awaits further books by him. At the very least, his bodybuilding quest gave him something to say. I hope he can find other things to say and write about now that he's back in the ordinary gray world (which is its own disease, if a bit subtler).
on December 27, 2009
The events described in this book appear to have basis in reality, but they're exaggerated for effect. If you think about it, why wouldn't the author do this? He purposely does not mention actual people, which gives him free reign to say whatever he wants sans recourse. His own account of being taught "the walk" (how to walk like a bodybuilder) is funny, but clearly made-up. No one, not even the worst knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing bodybuilders teach each other this. Having been a bodybuilder myself for almost 30 years, believe me, I know. I'm well-versed in the subculture.
Also, I'm confused as to what makes the author "unlikely." An education? A high IQ? Over the past 30 years I've known a huge number of bodybuilders. They range in intellect from the-dumbest-of-the-dumb to Mensa-caliber Ph.Ds. It's emotional issues that propel people into bodybuilding, not stupidity. Intelligence doesn't factor into it at all (although the smarter ones tend to not push it as far, especially these days).
This book will entertain you, but keep in mind that what you're reading is a fictionalized account of real events. It's not real, and it's not honest. Bodybuilding is an easy and obvious target for derision, sort of like certain Walmart customers (if you're familiar with that web site). The author found fish in barrel, pulled out his gun, and began discharging rounds. What the reader is left with is one big fishing story.