Luchador: Who knew that wrestling could be so enticing?
I had no second thoughts when Erin Finnegan’s publisher Interlude asked me to read her second novel, Luchador. I had read her debut and absolutely loved it (here’s my review). Not speaking much Spanish myself, I had no idea what “luchador” meant. It means ‘fighter’, and the novel is about Lucha Libre, aka free fighting, the Mexican version of wrestling. What had I gotten myself into?
Wrestling? In an LGBT novel? Come again? My mind immediately wandered to the only wrestling I’d ever witnessed. None live, I couldn’t/wouldn’t do that to myself, just pictures of it, from the London 2012 Olympics, and as gay as that looks, that wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to ‘read’ about:
So, this was my mindset as I opened the book and began to read, cautiously, not really wanting to. Yet despite my prejudice, my fears and flight instinct kicking in, I was almost instantly transported back to my own home state of Arizona and South Tucson, a rough neighborhood in the city my sister calls her home town, a place I’ve been to many times. We meet ten year old Gabriel, who loves to watch Lucha Libre with his dad on Sundays. Wearing a mask, just like the big stars in Mexico, he throws himself off the arm of the couch, launching attacks at his father while they’re watching live broadcasts from the DF (‘distrito federal‘, Mexicos version of DC).
However, tragedy soon strikes and we move through time and space to Mexico. Several years pass and Gabriel now lives with his relatives in Mexico City, goes to college and still dreams of Lucha Libre…
It took me exactly ten seconds to get hooked to this story, and I had a hard time putting it down. However, my body needs sleep and so I took a break and finished it the next morning, ignoring both husband and son (sorry!) to the best of my ability. Luchador is an amazing story, and I feel pretty privileged to have been able to read it before it was released (which was yesterday, actually, 11/3). Just as Erin did in her previous book, Sotto Voce, she wraps the character development and the arc story around a topic. In Sotto Voce it was wine making, here it is Mexican wrestling. I’ve seen snippets of Lucha Libre on TV before, and it was as appealing to me as any other sort of contact sport is, which means: zilch, nada, not at all. Count me out!
Yet after having finished Luchador, I turned to YouTube to find some Lucha Libre (plenty of it there) to watch. I had to turn it off, because it’s just not for me. Still! Although, I’ll share this clip with you, about an exótico wrestler, i.e. gay luchadores, which are a thing in Lucha Libre, and the book is very much about the exóticos of the Lucha Libre circuit. This isn’t a statement about Erin’s writing or storytelling, and even though I have gained a respect and some knowledge for the sport, its history and the work going into it, I still can’t watch it. I’ll stick to Erin’s mental images of the authentic independent Lucha Libre as opposed to the empresa version of it (which you can watch on YouTube).
Erin’s writing is absolutely stunning, and as an author and non-native English speaker, I’m full of envy of her capability to craft the most beautiful and picturesque language. But she does more than that, for instance when Gabriel and his mentor, Miguel, have this conversation about what it means to be gay and a luchador:
“You may admire us, and train with us, but you don’t want to be one of us. You want to be out and you want to be one of them. Well, let me tell you, mijo, you play straight like Arturo? That’s no different than playing camp with us, because that’s an act, too. Besides, he’s right about one thing—it’s too late for that.”
This discussion, about straight acting vs femininity is age old, and it’s still ongoing. Don’t believe me? Download Grindr and find out for yourself. Straight acting is the thing to be if you want to get laid. Just as woman are considered worth less than men by society, so are feminine guys, camp guys, considered worth less than masculine, straight acting guys. Pathetic, yes, but nonetheless a fact. Then there’s this quote from a discussion with the closeted Arturo, who refuses to play Exótico:
“You act like being exótico is second class.”
“So do you,” he said. “You defend them, but tell me, Gabriel—do you want to be one?”
Gabriel went silent.
“There it is,” Arturo said. His voice was softer now, less combative. He had won this round.
Ms Finnegan goes deep here, and we get to explore the challenges to being LGBT in the world of sports, with parallels to the U.S. and American football, well fleshed out in Gabriel’s love interest. As the luchadores are often masked, they have the possibility to play a part very different from that of their own life, which Arturo does. The intricacies of gay life are mirrored within this macho world against heteronormativity and Ms Finnegan’s writing captures the very essence of the greatest struggle within the LGBT community in this story in the most astonishing way.
Gabriel embraces his own form of exótico, pushing the boundaries of exóticos, expanding his universe, but, and I think this is the most important quote in the entire novel, there is a price to pay:
“Whatever you decide, understand that at some point, you’re going to have to sacrifice for it.”
“I don’t understand.”
Miguel leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling, as if the dim bulbs and acoustic tiles held the answer to life’s great mysteries. “You will.”
This scene is about a third into the novel, and it’s stayed with me. In fact, it still rings in my ears, because in it, Erin very aptly captures what it is like to be LGBT, not just in the sports world, but in life in general. In fact, I might be inclined to say it’s true for human life in general. We all have to pay a price for the decisions we make, particularly if said decisions go against what is considered acceptable by society. The price we pay as LGBT may be higher, but that isn’t to say there aren’t prices to be paid by all of us.
One of my best friends hasn’t seen his family in five years, the steep price he pays for being gay, out and proud. That is the real life price to pay, very different from the price of glitter, lipstick and eyeliner that Gabriel must pay to appear as El Ángel Exótico.
Luchador is an unusual novel, introducing us to a sport, a form of entertainment of sorts, which is unknown to most of us, while at the same time discussing the very mystery of modern life, trying to be true to ourselves, navigating family, relationships, love. The blending of American and Mexican is very refreshing and a beautiful middle finger at the current political climate where Mexico is the scapegoat du jour for Republican politicians. Ms Finnegan shows that underneath the masks, we’re all human, regardless of our skin color, faith or nationality.
I admired the way Erin introduced me to the art and craft of wine making in Sotto Voce, but this is something else entirely. Luchador lingers with me, envelops my consciousness and keeps asking me important questions about life itself, the choices we make, and the consequences we face because of them. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book quite like this before, and I’ve read quite a few…
Let me also say a word or two about Ms Finnegan’s writing. Yes, I am envious of her incredible talent, and the book is very well crafted. There are a couple of instances where I lost track of where I was, but that could be due to the fact that I read an early draft of the book. I found the jumps in time, as justified as they are from a storytelling point of view, hard to grasp at first; for instance the move from Tucson to the DF, or Miguel’s accident, or the move to LA. But I put that down to the fact that I was reading an ARC, not the final product. The language is absolutely stunning, and I’ll exemplify it with one single sentence from the book:
His rich baritone settled over Gabriel like comfort food: delicious, impossible to say no to, and undoubtedly unhealthy.
I wish I could come up with writing like that… Totally envious. LOL
I don’t know when Luchador is going to leave me. For now, I enjoy its company, as I ponder the mystery of life. Luchador is a novel you’ll cherish and read again. I know I will. Gabriel, Miguel, Ray, Jason and some of other secondary and even tertiary characters are people you’ll want to revisit every now and then. I have a hunch I’ll pick up even more nuances from this masterpiece.
Have a wonderful weekend.