Book by Randy Roach, Review by Greg Sushinsky
Into the world of bodybuilding writing and thinking enters the heaviest of heavyweights, gravity comes not from its size or the number of pages, but from the quality of its content, the mastery of its author’s insight. All at once, this major work from an author unknown to many (though he shouldn’t be unknown and won’t be for long) has exploded onto the staid, narrow, cramped playing field known affectionately or not as the muscleworld. There has never been a book like this in bodybuilding.
With the notable exception of a handful of writers and sadly, only a handful of books, the history of bodybuilding writing has seen a paucity of quality writing, more so a paucity of quality thought. In a world dominated by near illiterates who live down to every negative stereotype you can imagine, with rampant, craven drug use, anti-social and violent behavior, where heretofore serious critical literature has been all but absent, where what passes for commentary comes out of the fevered jottings of pumper-mad big boys threatening each other obscenely and violently on internet chat rooms, where knowledge of the outside world is either absent or neglected, into this world Randy Roach’s work arrives as alien as it is stunning. It is not so much a book as a revelation.
True, there have been some serious writers and thinkers on the sport: in no particular order, Terry Todd, though a powerlifter not a bodybuilder, one of the deep thinkers and fine writers, along with John Fair (“Muscletown USA”), Clarence Bass (“Ripped” and so much more)—who routinely touches the stratosphere of thought on bodybuilding and also displays an uncommon breadth, Richard Winett, a university professor and participant in the sport, Charles Gaines years ago with his ground-breaking work, Pumping Iron, and several more (but not that many) who probably should be mentioned. But that we can mention that there are these few in a paragraph or so says a lot about what’s wrong with the sport and the atmosphere surrounding it.
The book Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors itself modestly does not claim to be the definitive work on the sport, yet for those who follow bodybuilding or have participated in any way, one gets the impression that Randy Roach has somehow captured it all; you find yourself thinking “is there anything he doesn’t know or hasn’t included?” Yet, the book is no mere compendium, no list or simple linear walk, no stroll from Sandow through to Schwarzenegger, no, this is a fine, strong tapestry that weaves seemingly all the aspects of the sport together, seamlessly: the showbiz, the pizzazz, the hype, the business, the greed, the training, the personalities, the deep, longing desires, yes, the drugs, all told in engrossing, if not riveting stories that read almost like a mystery story more than a history, all envisioned through the prism of nutrition. The mystery is, how did the sport become itself, and what will it next become?
Randy Roach has captured it all, and what informs the book implicitly is a respect and love for what is best in the sport, from the deep desires of the lonely teenager trying to figure out sets and reps in his garage or basement, to the bewildering, exhilarating realization, the eureka moment, for this same lone trainer that, yes, muscle growth is possible through the dint of effort, of eating and training, and that one can ultimately transform his or her own physique, possibly to the extent of art if wildly successful, or at least to better oneself in a physical way which is deeply glued to the spiritual, inner journey. Randy Roach understands what this is, that it is the truest impulse of the sport, that it stands at least alongside or against the tawdry and the awful which bodybuilding has earned for itself in reputation every step of the way. This idealistic principle, pursued without guile or subterfuge, is also what redeems the activity, despite its deserved public opprobrium and denunciation. Randy Roach has written a great book because the author understands bodybuilding as close to its entirety and has been able to bring that to the printed page in a way that no other writer has. In his work, he has implicitly answered the question or shown why people bodybuild.
Author Roach’s choice of nutrition as the hermeneutic, the defining principle or the lens through which to filter everything in the sport, is a choice both dangerous and inspired. It appears, like so many elegantly simple, good ideas, to be obvious only in retrospect. It is like Tillich’s Systematic Theology: comprehensive, lofty, and lays the subject bare. Dangerous because nothing is as controversial in the sport with the exception of (and related to) drugs, inspired, because although many have written about nutrition in bodybuilding—ad nausea—nobody has made nutrition come alive, almost as another living, breathing character, moving through the historical landscape and the sport in an inexorable way that no one—we mean no one—has ever captured in bodybuilding before. Nutrition as background, landscape, being and social force, informs every breath of the sport according to Roach’s compelling analysis.
The brilliance of the book lies in the way Randy Roach has brought in such disparate elements as the decline of the quality of the food supply along with the rise of the supplement industry and the parallel world of drug use that raced along with these developments for the hearts and minds of bodybuilders, who were and always are ever-seeking to find if not a better way, at least an easier way to reach the sport’s extreme ideals. Although author Roach has his own set of views on the food issues—his preferences are not hidden for the raw and unprocessed, yet he is no preacher nor intrusive harpy or intolerant fundamentalist on the matter, he simply plugs away quietly with his scholarship, insights, and tapestry of context that should make any thinking reader closely examine his or her own views on food and nutrition, and how we got to where we are as a society, not just a sport.
This, too, is the hidden strength of Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors: not just sinew, but bone, backbone and steel at that. Roach is not a mere conjurer, a trickster or a sleight-of-hand author perpetrating something slick; his meat-and-bones, painstaking detailing of the sport and the men and women who made it, ultimately have impact and meaning far beyond bodybuilding. He examines the psychology of bodybuilding and bodybuilders in a way few have, in a way that goes beyond the prejudices about the participants, yet he is no apologist. The behavior and attitudes are chronicled, Roach wisely lets it out there for the reader to conclude.
You will read of the personalities, from Sandow and before--Roach reaches back deep, into ancient literature and the Bible—to proceed from the mists of the mythic through the very flesh-and-blood history of the Bernarr MacFaddens, the Jack LaLanne’s, to Charles Atlas—almost a pre-modern batch of names, into the Hoffman-Weider era which became, for better or worse (yes, we have to say worse) modern bodybuilding. You will see that the big names such as John Grimek and Steve Reeves—Renaissance art come to life--have their moment on stage, that the Bill Pearls and the Vince Girondas and others contribute something, and like all personalities larger than life, some of the sport’s greats change its direction or leave a larger footprint than others.
But Roach lays out a case that the men behind the scenes, the impresarios were really the movers of this carnival; the Hoffmans, the Weiders, a bit of a neglected Dan Lurie, even some of the nutritionists such as the colorful Rheo H. Blair (nee Irvin Johnson—bodybuilders will recognize milk and egg protein here), all jockeyed for money, power and influence which no competitor, despite his twenty inch arms, could ever achieve.
One of the striking impressions of the sport when reading the panorama which the author crunches out with hard, dead facts, facts which animate and explain the actions of the various fighting factions (you will know high-protein and fat versus high-carbohydrate diets, and understand why they are part of the “bodybuilding wars” to this day), and illustrate not only what went on, but for the first time perhaps, or in its most multi-dimensional way, really show why.
There are colorful moments in the book too important to try to describe, as the author does a far better job of this than we could. Suffice it to say, there are both humorous and disgusting moments brought to light, and even though the book at times is scholarly in its thoroughness, it is never so in tone. The book is a serious history of the sport, yet it reads, as we said, like a fascinating, entertaining mystery, and it should be a movie. Right now, it’s only Volume I, but it stands as the winner and champion of bodybuilding books ever written. What then can we expect from Volume II?
A word about the author. Randy Roach has been a lifelong bodybuilder, someone like so many thousands if not millions who struggled to figure out how to train on his own, but he also has endured the challenge of Steven Johnson Syndrome, a sight-destroying disease which over a period of years rendered him sightless. Once a brilliant software engineer, then no longer able to work due to his fading sight, he turned gradually to thinking about and writing what has become the greatest work on the sport. His career is a work of dedication and also courage.
Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors is a classic work of distinction, of unparalleled achievement fashioned by an author who is touching genius.
A further note: Fitzgerald, Wolfe and Hemingway needed their Maxwell Perkins, Randy Roach has his George Harrod, a passionate editor who often refereed language, concepts and proved a challenging and estimable sounding board for author Roach. His dedication and diligence on the book is invisible, yet it shines through in the background, the atmosphere, and illumines the aura of the text. A special mention therefore is in order.
Copyright © 2009 Greg Sushinsky. All Rights Reserved.