Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pushcart Prize XXXV: Best of the Small Presses

I'm always on the lookout for good nonfiction. Some of the best I find are in The Pushcart Prize. Editor Bill Henderson publishes it once a year, and includes short stories and poetry, as well.

My daughter gave me the 2011 edition in September, but immediately borrowed it. When I visited last week, I got to read a bunch of good stuff, but especially liked "Freaky Beasts: Revelations of a One-Time Bodybuilder." Here are some excerpts:

In the ... documentary Pumping Iron (1977), Arnold Schwarzenegger... likened a good workout pump to an orgasm... I cared more for what was permanent, for what I could carry through the day with me: the body armor that announced the arrival of a formidable opponent, a disciplined warrior... a man. Because, after all, being a man is the chief concern of any adoleswcent male, whether he recognizes it or not...

I needed another fifty pounds of lean mass, and it looked like anabolic drugs were the only route. If someone had told me then that in just over a year I would waltz across a stage in a frenzied bodybuilding competition, wearing only a blue bikini bottom, tanned an unnatural bronze, and mushroomed on three different anabolic drugs, I would have doubted it. My only focus at this juncture was to look like a genetically enhanced Atlas, to be the strongest eighteen-year-old guy in town.

... during my senior year of high school some pals and I were able to score - through vigilant negotiations with other bodybuilders... - a potent oral anabolic called Anadrol... Anadrol was the most sought after bodybuilding drug on the black market, a badass chemical invention that increased size and strength as nothing else could. Anadrol was so attractive, not only because of its supreme effectiveness, but because it wasn't an injectable steroid: many of my companions had a fear of needles... and weren't capable of plunging one into their buttocks.

The irony is that injectable steroids are much healthier because, unlike pills, they get directly assimilated by the body without having to pass through the liver. Anadrol, on the other hand, was so potent it unleashed hell upon the liver - sometimes I could feel mine aching. But the stuff was sweet magic: I inflated from 155 pounds to 165 pounds in just two weeks, and this for someone who could go months on end without gaining a single pound. Never mind the high blood pressure that caused me constant, beleaguering headaches... I could think nothing of the possibility that I had begun inflicting damage on my vital organs with black market chemicals.

Nearly everyone... noticed the added mass, the increased irritability and aggression, my complaints of headaches... One day in the hallway I literally ripped a door off its hinges when it wouldn't open properly, and for some reason this felt good to me...

(I was) beginning friendships with gargantuan freaks of nature, guys who were so consumed by drugs and the bodybuilding lifestyle that they could scarcely hold a two-minute conversation with anybody who wasn't.

I had begun accumulating boxes of steroids for my own use; the drugs would come into the gym from our key sources - two fellow freaks we trusted - and I bought up whatever I could, even if I wasn't just then using that particular blend of testosterone. Word of one's drug stash passed quickly... and when a fellow soldier needed an anabolic for his battle, you happily sold it to him. This hoarding and selling became rather chimerical once when a pal named Tom stopped by my place to pick up a thousand dollars worth of Dianabol, a magical anabolic difficult to come by. Tom was a gigantic cop, six feet seven inches tall and well over three hundred pounds, and he arrived at my apartment that day in his police cruiser and police uniform. So I sold a uniformed cop a bag of anabolic steroids in my sunlit kitchen. Through the window above the sink I watched him leave, and I remember saying aloud to myself, "What on earth am I doing?" But I didn't give it much thought after that moment, because this was the reality of the world we inhabited. None of us experienced even a second of shame over our drug use - shame was for everyday people, and we were champions who relished the secrecy and law breaking.

The 2012 Pushcart Prize has just been published. The excerpt above is from the 2011 edition. I wish I had all 36 volumes.

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