I picked up Gladiator: A True Story Of ‘Roids, Rage, And Redemption, the brutally honest tell-all from American Gladiator Dan “Nitro” Clark, intending to mock its author from a safe distance. Oh, what sport I planned to make of the foibles! For weeks, I would point at the book accusingly and bray with laughter. “Haw! Haw! Haw!” was my exact sentiment. The Silly Show-Biz Book Club post I planned to write belonged very much to the Nelson Muntz School Of Literary Criticism. Muntz is one the preeminent thinkers of our age: his “I jeer, therefore I am” philosophy pervades the Internet.
Then I started reading Gladiator, and something strange happened. I came to laugh at Nitro, but I ended up empathizing with him and getting wrapped up in his sordid steroid saga. I found myself emotionally invested in his hard-fought battle to wean himself off the juice. And I’m not just writing that because we share an editor and a publishing house. Our editor is the great Brant Rumble. When choosing an editor, I have but one criteria: How manly is his name? In this case, Rumble just barely beat out Brock Savage and Bronco Thunder. I proposed doing shared events with Nitro where we’d read from our respective memoirs, then fight each other in the parking lot. I figure since Nitro is off the juice, it’d be an even match.
Nitro, a.k.a. Dan Clark, grew up as the son of a shy Japanese mother and a moody American womanizer who had a girl in every port, generally of the professional sort. In lean, stripped-down prose, Clark provides a snapshot into the psyche-warping sights and sounds of his atypical boyhood in Vietnam alongside his brother and father:
When I was ten years old… I see my dad bloody and beat the shit out of a guy.
I see my dad writhing on the floor, suffering a heart attack.
I see my dad beat the shit out of my brother.
I see my dad cry and drink himself to oblivion after my brother’s death.
I see my dad fuck two prostitutes while I lie in the same bed.
I see my father wave good-bye to me as I board the plane to return to United States, alone.
While Clark was still a boy, he watched his older brother die of electrocution trying to recover one of his younger brother’s drawings. These formative traumas don’t excuse Clark’s adult misbehavior, but it’s easy to see why he viewed the world as scary, random, and cruel. If the game is rigged anyway, why not get ahead by any means necessary?
Chubby and insecure, Clark found salvation in sports. The football field afforded him a place where he could sublimate his aggression and inner torment, where he could be reborn as a warrior. It gave his life direction and purpose. So when an injury threatened to derail a promising career, he welcomed any elixir that would restore his athletic mojo.
Enter steroids. Clark began using steroids in 1982, during the Wild West stage of the drug’s soaring popularity, when usage was an open secret among gym rats looking to jump-start the evolutionary process and skip straight to the superhuman stage. Steroids didn’t change Clark. They didn’t make him angry or confrontational. They merely sharpened and amplified the rage already present. Clark’s childhood demons never went away, they just grew stronger and more dangerous with every injection.
Clark was smart enough to find jobs that offered an outlet for his rage. He was an unusually aggressive bouncer, a replacement player during the NFL strike, and ultimately an American Gladiator. American Gladiators turned Clark and his Nitro alter ego into a punchline and a superstar. But he was living a lie. When the world looked at Clark’s impossibly buff body squeezed into red, white, and blue spandex, they saw a Greek god. When Clark looked at himself in the mirror, he saw a fraud. There was a horrifying gulf between image and reality.
Like so many converts to the glory of steroids, Clark became a freelance mad scientist, using his body as a subject. He goes into excruciating detail about the drugs’ physical effects. During one particularly gruesome passage, he describes getting breast-reduction surgery to deal with his grotesquely swollen man-boobs. He writes wrenchingly about struggling to get an erection after steroids and withdrawal play havoc with his testosterone, and about having sex with a former steroid addict whose clitoris had grown to freakishly large proportions.
Before Gladiator, my knowledge of steroids was gleaned largely, if not exclusively, from Jose Canseco’s Juiced. In Juiced, Canseco assumes the role of Johnny Steroidseed, pointing the way toward a bright and shining future where steroids will lead mankind to new heights of greatness. Gladiator consequently functions as a harrowing Requiem For A Dream to Juiced’s cheerleading Up In Smoke. If you’re even thinking about using steroids, Gladiator should scare you straight.
Steroids helped make Clark. They nearly destroyed him. He became the athlete he’d always dreamed of being, yet was filled with self-hatred, depression, and anxiety. Could he function without the crutch of steroids? Gladiator earns its redemptive arc through lean, compelling storytelling and brutal candor.
I read Gladiator just before I was scheduled to interview Charles Grodin. I needed to read Grodin’s latest memoir over a single weekend (though he was thoughtful enough to repeat half the book’s contents over the course of our interview), yet Clark’s book kept calling me. It sometimes overdoses on testosterone and macho melodrama, but it’s a gripping story cleanly and compellingly told.
I was initially attracted to Gladiator because its author’s experiences seemed so foreign and exotic. Though I’ve never done steroids, I ended up liking it because I could relate to Clark’s struggle. It might seem strange to empathize with the author of a book with chapter titles like “Nitro Must Die!”, “Oh Shit, I’ve Got Tits!” and “Playboy Bunnies, Porn Stars and Strippers”. Growing up I too shared the sentimental fantasy that someday I would be rich, successful and famous enough to make my childhood traumas disappear. Clark learns, as all of us must, that no amount of external validation can fill a deep and eviscerating spiritual emptiness. There’s a great line in Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)” that goes, “How you gonna win when you ain’t right within?”
I’ve always identified with those words. Hindsight has rendered them haunting and ironic. Who could have guessed that the wise beyond her years, ridiculously talented, seemingly perfect young woman who wrote them was such a troubled soul herself? It’s altogether likely she was addressing herself as much as anyone else. It doesn’t matter what the world thinks of you when you hate yourself.
Clark wasn’t capable of being happy or experiencing genuine contentment knowing that the physique that made him famous was the project of a needle, a drug and an addiction. I don’t know if Clark has experienced redemption. It’s a neat literary conceit (who doesn’t love a happy ending except us killjoy critical types?) yet prohibitively difficult in practice. But Clark seems to be on the road to feeling right within. Redemption is a long and fraught journey, not a destination. On the back cover of Gladiator Clark looks smaller and more human than he did during his heyday but he also looks a lot happier.
I suspect I was probably the only man in the world simultaneously reading memoirs by my Hebraic brother in motor-mouthed neuroses Charles Grodin and Nitro from American Gladiators at the very same time. At the very least, I was probably the only man alive who saw plenty of himself in both Grodin and Nitro. Superior memoirs have the power to make the personal universal and the universal personal. I see myself in many of the people I read about for this column and elsewhere. Except for Mamie Van Doren. That woman is just a freak.
The Final Entry in Silly Show-Biz Book Club Month: Waah! Diddy Wasn’t Nice to Me by Diddy’s former ghostwriter
Possible Future Entries
The Name Above The Title, Frank Capra
Preston Sturges By Preston Sturges, Also Frank Capra, oddly enough
Straight from the Source: An Expose from the Former Editor in Chief of the Hip-Hop Bible, Also Frank Capra. Jesus, is there anything this guy didn’t write?
The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Land and Keep A Man By Giving Amazing Blowjobs, Karrine Steffans with Frank Capra