Mick Foley, wrestler with a heart of gold, has written a knockout novel for tony imprint Knopf. John Updike and J.D. Salinger –watch your back.
July 25, 2003
By Gregory Kirschling
The year's unlikeliest debut novelist greets visitors to his Long Island home in worn red Winnie‑the‑Pooh sweatpants and a matching flannel shirt, with a black leather fanny pack tugging at his waist. His mop of thick brown hair hides the spot where his right ear was torn off during a 1994 wrestling match against an ogre named Vader, while a bushy goatee does a good job of obstructing his trademark missing front teeth. As a former WWE superstar, he is famous for enduring excruciating pain over 2,000 career tangles in the ring, yet when the 310‑pound, ever‑smiling father of four descends into his basement's "Christmas Room"‑his beloved safe haven, adorned with yuletide decor year‑round ‑it's to discuss literature until the kids get home from school.
"I was sitting in this room reading Catcher in the Rye, and I literally put the book down and said out loud, 'Is it me, or is absolutely nothing happening in this book?" says Mick Foley, 38, a.k.a. the leather‑masked Mankind. "I thought, Hey, if I could write a narrator who was that clear, but also have a story where things happen, then I might have an effective work."
His first stab at such a work, a grim yet earnest coming‑of‑age novel called Tietam Brown, came out this month. Foley, who retired from pro wrestling in 2000, so enjoyed writing his own memoirs ‑published as 1999's Have a Nice Day! and 2001's Foley Is Good, both of them No. 1 best‑sellers‑ that he started considering fiction. How hard could it be? Inspired by Stephen King's how‑to On Writing, he scrawled a longhand draft of Tietam in six weeks, caffeinating himself through the
wee hours with two‑liter Diet Cokes. Then his agent shopped it, and, to the astonishment of the entire book universe, the classiest publisher in the biz, Knopf, home to Toni Morrison and John Updike, picked up Tietam.
His no‑nonsense editor, Victoria Wilson, asserts she'd never heard of him. "The only thing I care about is the writing, and he's a real writer." She hopes "real readers," not just wrestling fans, will find the book.
Like Catcher, Tietam is narrated by a teen who sounds like a teen ("I'm perpetually 17 years old," jokes Foley). And true to its author's intention, things happen: Guileless Andy Brown loses an ear, romances a cheerleader, and battles and bonds with his hellacious father, Tietam. Befitting both Foley's family‑man demeanor ("I could easily go a year without using the F‑word") and his bloody history as a wrestler ("The only match anyone ever wants to know about is the one where I ended up with a tooth in my nose"), the book veers between unusual sweetness and bone‑shuddering violence. "It's not that big a departure for me to write," Foley insists, as 9‑year‑old Noelle, just home from school, vies for Dad's attention with headstands on the Christmas Room carpet. "In wrestling we always considered ourselves storytellers in the ring, even though to the general public we were just guys in tights pretending to fight."
The storyteller is, in fact, mulling over his next coming‑of‑age novel, Scooter Riley, among many other things. On his nightstand sits The Future of Freedom, Fareed Zakaria's book on illiberal democracy. A new subscriber to Focus on Africa magazine, Foley is intrigued by politics but realizes his platform ‑which would call for "huge increases in foreign aid"‑ wouldn't get him elected dogcatcher. Instead, in 10 or 15 years' time, he'd like to play Santa Claus at his favorite amusement park, Santa's Village in New Hampshire.
But now the kids are hungry, so it's pizza time at the Foleys', with two pies spread across a big dining‑room table littered with old homework assignments. Following Noelle's recitation of an essay called "My Dad the Brave Hero," the phone rings, and it's Wilson from Knopf, calling to congratulate Foley on a favorable Tietam advance review.
"Oh, really!" he exclaims into the phone. He cups the mouthpiece and cheerfully nudges his guest. "They compared it to Catcher in the Rye, so cross off those bad things I said." His wife, Colette, a former model, begins laughing immediately after he hangs up. "But you hated that book!" He laughs back. "I didn't hate it! I said I looked at it as an inspiration because his narrator is so well drawn, so likable, but I didn't think much happened in it. Now (Book Page) says it's a cross between Catcher in the Rye and American Psycho. Which is kind of an appealing mix…"
American Psycho? Foley is genuinely mystified that readers find the book so hardcore. He figures that if what he sees as normal is construed as dark, his 16 years as a wrestler may have something to do with that.
"I am a little concerned that people who've known me a long time are going to look at me a little differently for what apparently goes on in my mind at 2 a.m.," Foley admits. "But I loved writing it. And I think it was Ian McEwan who said, 'At the end of the day when you sit down to write, you are who you are."