One of the best things you can say about David Shoemaker's book The Squared Circle: Life, Death and Professional Wrestling is that it's a book about dead people that doesn't feel morbid or macabre. He is honestly more concerned about the lives of pro wrestlers and not their tragic deaths. Shoemaker does not ignore the many salacious and scandalous parts of his subjects' lives-such as alcohol and drug abuse-but instead chooses to focus on what the lives of these "dead wrestlers" meant. The lives of the Von Erich family, Randy Savage, and Yokozuna (amongst others) become moments for Shoemaker to not only create an idiosyncratic history of the wrestling business, but also analyze what each wrestler signifies about popular culture. It's a book that tries, via stories about the lives and deaths of wrestlers, to narrative history as social commentary. Heck, French literary theorist Roland Barthes-whose most famous piece is "The Death of the Author"-figures in the midcard of Shoemaker's book, popping up in several chapters to help get Shoemaker's own analyses over.
From the outset, the benefits and limits of Shoemaker's conceit become clear: by focusing on dead wrestlers, he is able to create a linear history of the wrestling business that does not need to be anyway comprehensive (for example, the wrestlers of ECW are background players). He can pick and choose which wrestlers will make up his history. After a brisk and enjoyable narrative about the roots of professional wrestling, the book develops a groove that examines wrestlers from "The Territorial Era," "The WrestleMania Era," and "The Modern Era." When taken together, the lives of these wrestlers fashion a patchwork history of wrestling by using specific grapplers as cultural, historical, and theoretical signposts. At the end of each chapter on a wrestler, Shoemaker tries to position the life, and death, of the wrestler as social critiques of why we watch wrestling and how these grapplers were theorists of culture in their own right.
At no point in the book does Shoemaker's theoretical impetus shine more than the chapter on Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit. Shoemaker cracks open his Joseph Campbell to claim:
Eddie [Guerrero] was luck personified-he was a gassed-up Tyche, a steroidal Saint Jude, the holy revision and rejection of the impossible: He was the grappler's crude dream in the face of defeat.
Benoit, on the other hand, doesn't exist. Call him Lethe, Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion. Or Saint Anthony (of Padua), patron saint of the missing-and, incidentally, of miracles. (366)
In this passage, you can see that the lives and deaths of Guerrero and Benoit have been transfigured into archetypal symbols for wrestling and culture. The hero we want to-in fact need to-remember is placed against the hero we desperately want to forget. By yoking Guerrero and Benoit together, Shoemaker is arguing that the desire to canonize Guerrero is dependent on our need to excommunicate Benoit. Guerrero's legacy is not haunted by his relationship to Benoit but created by it. It's an interesting take on the situation, but how eager you are to engage with Shoemaker with these analyses will probably greatly influence how much you enjoy his book.
So, now comes the time in any review where the reader asks: "So, jerkface reviewer, should I buy this book?" Overall, I enjoyed the book as it provided a different take on wrestling. Where writers such as Dave Meltzer, Bryan Alvarez, or Wade Keller adopt a journalistic approach to the industry, Shoemaker aims for more ephemeral goals. For Shoemaker, it's not about star ratings or insider journalism. His story is about how these all too human wrestlers became legends and myths. Your appreciation of the book will probably depend on how much you want to wrestle with Barthes, Campbell, and Foucault in order to learn about Bruiser Brody and the Fabulous Moolah.
Overall, Shoemaker's book represents an expansion of the discourse about wrestling. That alone makes his book interesting and, hopefully, provides the impetus for other voices to bring their own thoughts and approaches to the strange, wonderful, and, yes, tragic artform of pro wrestling.