Is professional wrestling fake? Before answering "of course," consider the death of Owen Hart, which journalist Thomas Hackett describes in head-spinning detail in his pro-wrestling examination Slaphappy. When an apparatus designed to lower him to the stage malfunctioned, Hart plunged to his death as a crowd of cheering fans chanted in glee, thinking it was all part of the show. And who can blame them? The ambulance that hauled Hart away had been used earlier that night for another "injury," and the EMTs that treated him were the ones always on hand for accidents, staged or otherwise. Regardless of whether the outcomes are scripted, pro wrestling is the kind of spectacle where traditional notions of real and fake don't really apply. And sometimes it's the kind of spectacle that draws blood.
Confessing that he used to be among those who snootily dismissed pro wrestling, Hackett begins Slaphappy by joining the adoring throngs on a New-York-to-Philadelphia bus chartered by fans of the (now-defunct) Extreme Championship Wrestling league. Watching the ritual-like clashes between iconic characters, and the effect they had on the chanting crowds, Hackett became convinced that wrestling has more to say about America than most would care to acknowledge, and he launched a peripatetic journey that took him from barnyard bouts staged for 50 paying customers to a closely monitored interview with The Rock.
That translates into a lack of focus in a book that sometimes reads like a thoughtful sketch of a much bigger picture. Hackett trots out theorists from Roland Barthes to Mikhail Bakhtin, more to suggest new ways of looking at wrestling than to draw any conclusions. He's most convincing when exploring wrestling as a site for release of cultural anxieties, particularly those about homosexuality and shifting gender roles. But his character studies prove most memorable, particularly those from time spent in wrestling's lowest reaches and at the decaying Victorian home of Hart's Canadian family, where generations of wrestlers have come to learn the craft, and where some return to die. While the subject ultimately seems to elude Hackett in this too-brief book, that only furthers his first, most important point: Wrestling may be fake in the purest sense of the term, but there's something real going on beneath the surface.