Someone remarked to me recently that Mick Foley, the ex-professional wrestler, may be among the greatest two or three living Americans. The question came up because I mentioned his debut novel, Tietam Brown (2003), which I began reading not long after finishing the first volume of his memoirs, Have a Nice Day: A Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks (1999). The autobiography alone gives you the sense that he belongs in our annals (slim as contemporary pickings may be). The large Irish-American son of an athletics director from Long Island, Foley made it as a professional despite his un-stereotypical frame. He reached wrestling’s apex at a time when the art itself had hit its zenith in popularity, mostly because he was willing to get hurt. See, for example, this famous instance of his getting thrown off a 16-foot steel cage before climbing back up and being slammed through the metal structure into the ring, then onto some tacks. Mick Foley didn’t look like a wrestler. He played outlaws and deranged psychopaths. All while remaining a kind, tolerant, giving, down-to-earth guy, who never tires of talking about how beautiful he finds his wife.
Foley proudly tells the reader of his memoir that he didn’t employ a ghostwriter. And it shows, both in the autobiography and the novel. His prose can vary between choppiness and verbosity. It becomes, at points, just a tad awkward, such as at the beginning of Tietam Brown, when our narrator reports about a date: “No, a feel was not copped that night, nor was one even attempted, but that didn’t make the night any less glorious, because after all…she had wanted me to kiss her.” The odd up-front passives and the ellipses going nowhere might make you think the man’s talent in the ring doesn’t carry over onto the page. But that’s not true. Foley’s prose can be awkward, but it’s often uproariously funny and well-paced, shocking in its ability to hold back and then deliver the punch at just the right moment. Are we dealing with V.S. Naipaul? No. And I don’t know that the narration represents, say, the protagonist’s voice so much as Foley’s. But so what? It’s a darkly comic novel executed in hilarious, well-plotted prose. The whole thing rings with the same wry darkness and genuine sentiment as Mankind’s catchphrase: “have a nice day!”
As much as my recent ruminations have been all in on style, Tietam Brown is about story, one both remarkably fitting for Foley to have written and absolutely unexpected. Antietam Brown V is the great-great-grandson of an Irish immigrant Union soldier eaten by wild hogs after the battle of Antietam. His name has been given to him more out of spite than anything else; the memory is unpleasant, but, then again, so is the family. He grows up in foster care after his mother dies and his dad skips town. The novel, told in part through flashbacks and in part contemporarily (in his senior year of high school in the 1980s) takes us through his benighted life. Somehow, we cross paths with diddlers, the KKK, segregationists, moronic football coaches, anally fixated psychiatrists, Billy Graham, more corrupt evangelicals (this time with fake breasts), boy scouts, naked gymnastics, and a nun-run orphanage. But really at bottom, it’s a novel about young Tietam falling in love. Did I mention that he’s missing an ear and has a dead arm?
What struck me in reading Tietam Brown is Foley’s almost Coen Brother-like sensibilities. The universe is perverse and ever shifting yet ever the same. Beyond our ken, the world is a cosmic nightmare. All we can do (and here’s the twist) is laugh at it, enjoy the ride, appreciate the simple things. Our protagonist is neither stoic nor psychologically broken by reality. He simply inhabits it, exploring its unceasing horrors with good humor and frankness. It’s a very Catholic sensibility, if you ask me. Redeemed, sure, great—but what about Good Friday?
Perhaps that’s what makes Foley one of the greatest living Americans. Sure, he’s a humble, loving guy who stills lives on Long Island, despite making millions—a regular Cincinnatus. But he also achieved the American Dream, became a professional wrestler with nothing but grit and the modest opportunities made possible by post-war suburban development. And what’s he give back? A Lynchian horror story. He laughs in the face of ubiquitous injustice and unalloyed trauma. But hey—that’s mankind for you.