Hold the Pose

Wes Brown, Breaking Kayfabe

Bluemoose Books, 285pp, £9.99, ISBN 9781915693082

reviewed by Richard Smyth

Some time in the 1980s, the journalist Rick Broadbent interviewed the Halifax wrestler Shirley Crabtree, better known as ‘Big Daddy’, and asked him if wrestling was real. Crabtree sighed and replied: ‘The pain is real.’

This is how we justify our fictions (the formalised dishonesty of literature, the sweaty moral pantomime of wrestling). There’s something in here that’s true, we think, turning life over in our hands, giving it a shake, holding it to our ear. There’s something in here that’s true — I can feel it moving. So we take a hammer to life and bust it apart and take out the true thing that was in there and put it into something else, something new we’ve built, something we’ve made out of lies. Then we go, look everybody, I found this. And they all stamp their feet and chant our names and pound the bleachers with their fists.

Kayfabe is the name they give to the made-up parts of professional wrestling, all the parts that aren’t the pain. Supposedly it’s a Romany term, from the fairgrounds or sideshows; a warning that a punter, or a mark, was in earshot. Kayfabe. Keep shtum. Don’t break character, until the coast is clear.

The problem and the point is that the coast is never clear.

I’ve known Wes Brown for a little more than a decade. There goes another kayfabe. I know his dad a bit, too, Frank, a real-life ex-wrestler who used to fight as ‘Earl Black’: he has a fucked shoulder now, and a fucked leg, a bald head and a tiger tattoo. They’re both in Brown’s book Breaking Kayfabe, Wes and Frank, or ‘Wes’ and ‘Frank’ (it may be becoming apparent that calling this book a novel and not a memoir is another big, bold bit of kayfabe, and also that ‘kayfabe’ is a pleasing and characterful word for ‘bullshit’).

We’re shown pro wrestling here as a tough and largely ugly world that functions, inasmuch as it functions at all, as both an athletic spectacle (which it is, as anyone can see) and a legitimate vehicle for creative expression — a thing in which one can put whatever it is that’s true and must be said (the pain, of course), and parade it before the crowd. Play it straight, whatever you do. Respect the codes. Keep kayfabe. Hold the pose.

Both Wes and ‘Wes’ are writers and wrestlers from indistinguishable working-class backgrounds in Leeds. Wes’s first novel Shark was published in 2010; ‘Wes’, meanwhile, says of his own first novel: ‘It was a mess, unproofed, in need of more work, and I bottled it on stage at events, too afraid to say what I really thought.’ ‘Wes’—– Book Wes, let’s call him, or, better, Kayfabe Wes — recalls appearing ‘at literary festivals and bookstores, dressed up like an author, hair side-parted, and sounding like one with all the correct portentousness and writerly import to my voice, but I knew inside I was . . . an imposter.’

Kayfabe Wes has ‘lost faith in novelly novels . . . in their fake plots, fake events, fake characters’. It’s both funny and salutary to see literary fiction called out as ‘fake’ (leafing through The Trial or Anna Karenina: no, no, didn’t happen, no, as if, fake, fake, no, no way, I call bullshit on this) — salutary because in part even with the best fiction there is a sort of labour in combing out the truths, and I certainly know the feeling of becoming weary of the work, but also in part because there’s good kayfabe, which is the kind of bullshit we call art, and then there’s bad kayfabe, which is the kind of bullshit that’s just bullshit, and of course the world of books is steeped in it (writers, critics, readers, publishers, we’re all striking poses, all the time, and not only for our author photos and our bookstagram posts). Much about wrestling is preposterous of course but take a look at the literary scene with a cold, clear eye before you dare to laugh.

Anyway, this is not primarily a book about writing or books, it’s a book about wrestling, which means it’s a book about men and masculinity, and — because this is Wes Brown, who, not incidentally, took the ring name ‘Earl Black Junior’ — it’s about fathers and sons, too. You don’t have to know much about wrestling to appreciate it (you can be a civilian, a strawb (strawberry mivvy, civvy), but Brown is admirably sparing with his translations and explanations so to the uninitiated some of the fight passages are just riffs of fizzing ring jargon (‘he sent me into the corner, ran at me with his knee, brought me out to an exploder and, as I lay on the floor, signalled for his Rolling Tiger’). Anyway, each time, you get the point; you get, that is, the pain.

Brown wrestles in what’s called the strong style, an approach that emphasises physicality, intensity and realism. He writes in the strong style too. He’s seldom refined and sometimes sloppy, but mainly what he is is relentless. He’s relentless (merciless) in interrogating himself; he’s relentless (tireless) in chasing after whatever it is he’s chasing after, which might be ‘authenticity’, if only we knew what that’s supposed to look like. Nothing comes easy, here, or, if it does, it’s seen as too easy, and made hard. I thought it was supposed to be straightforward, being a man’s man? Of course we know that being a modern man is a terribly difficult thing, navigating shifting social codes and the nuances of a new moral landscape, seeking somehow to both like football and use her/they pronouns, have a dick and empty the dishwasher — but isn’t it just a piece of piss being a drinking, fighting, wrestling man? We just give in and it happens. Let the mask fall and have at it.

One of the things that comes over in Breaking Kayfabe is that there is no default mode. You can’t just neck a pint of lager and revert to factory settings. This is a book about putting on and taking off masks but it isn’t about exposure and concealment so much as it’s a dressing-up game, the question not ‘What’s beneath the mask?’ but ‘What mask do I wear today?’ It’s a little painful, a little embarrassing, to think of how much decision-making goes into the most Asda Basics construction of ‘a man’ (fellas, is it gay to run with your knee and signal for your rolling tiger?) but the Wes Browns front up to it with courage and intelligence. Authenticity is a will-o-the-wisp; there’s no rock-solid ‘me’ within the wrapping – there’s only more wrapping. Even at his must brutally basic, looking for trouble (and finding it) on the late-night city streets, Brown feels the need to adopt ‘my Batman voice’. Frank, his father, is no help, eccentric, incorrigible, a legend within the ring, an enigma outside it. Nobody in this business tells it quite like it is, perhaps because there is no it. It’s kayfabes all the way down.

This novel (psst, kayfabe) has the feel of a book born out of chaos and edited negligently, which means for once there’s good cause to reach for the most embarrassing of critical adjectives, raw. This is a quality that very little published fiction actually has — like much of the critics’ vocab book, ‘raw’ tends to operate at a remove, and to mean not ‘raw’ exactly but something more like ‘having attributes I’ve seen other critics describe as raw’ — but I use it here because Breaking Kayfabe has those attributes (it’s honest, punchy, tough, rough around the edges) and what’s more feels not just unfinished but unfinishable. That relentlessness again. There seems to be no end in sight. Wes Brown — actual Wes, not Kayfabe Wes — no longer wrestles, but has taken up MMA. Because of course he has.

He winds up his book with an over-neat conclusion: ‘I had been writing a novel based on my life,’ says Kayfabe Wes, ‘but the more I wrote, the more I realised it wasn’t wrestling that was fake, it was wrestling that was real and the world was fake.’ The book, I think, tells us instead that they’re both pretty real, and both pretty fake, and that ‘fake’ and ‘real’ aren’t important or even meaningful definitions. In a world of moral performance and manufactured identity, it’s not breaking kayfabe that’s hard, or even keeping it — the real work is deciding which kayfabe to keep.

Richard Smyth is a writer and critic.