William Giraldi’s memoir, “The Hero’s Body,” offers a brilliant anthropological excursion into a world few of us will ever penetrate, even if we wanted to: the steroid-addled gym culture of working-class New Jersey. In the early 1990s, the young Giraldi moved among men whose bodies “looked engineered by some sinister geneticist” and who focused “on diaphanous skin and vascularity, a symphony of form.” He writes of the “fetishizing pleasure involved in the accumulation of steroids: the smooth, tiny ampules, no taller than a pinky, both clear and brownishly opaque,” and describes cycling through a series of formulas like some mad self-experimenting scientist.

(Liveright)

At one point, Giraldi enlisted his friends to help him train for a bodybuilding contest, and he reproduces verbatim their discussions of his training and diet — little arias of hyper-macho shop talk, thick with slang and physiological lingo. To an urban reader used to bookstores and cocktail parties, Giraldi’s Manville, N.J., is as exotic as the Kalahari.

The second section darkens in tone considerably. Giraldi’s father, relatively footloose after two decades of single parenthood, throws himself into an equally manly milieu of motorcycle racing, whose “brutal and thrilling essence” leads to his death in 2000. That tragedy sends the author into the kind of “addled mourning” that spins him through “cycles of pointlessness.” For Giraldi’s father, the refusal to slow down on a back-country twist of road was born of the same maddening impulse that caused the son to punish himself on the rack of the weight room, driven by the same toxic, blinding single-mindedness. “Of course he’d kill himself on that machine,” the author writes numbly. “Of course he would.”

Giraldi’s real topic is thus white, working-class machismo, the ethos of stoicism and toughness that he views as having psychically crippled and then killed his father, and from which he barely escaped into the sunlight of academic success and literature. (He is now an editor of a journal at Boston University and a contributing editor at the New Republic.) The subterranean byways of masculine identity, in which “some men love one another the same way they hate one another, through aggression and antagonism,” are forever murky, treacherous territory, in which the clearest and most discerning of writers have lost their way. Giraldi’s understanding is often perceptive and eloquent while somehow falling short of that last clarifying twist of insight that would vault his account into the ranks of the sublime.

Author William Giraldi (Robert Birnbaum)

He is not helped by prose that betrays the awkwardness of someone straining after the poetic: Finger marks are “ochered onto” skin, a blizzard brings “curvaceous cold,” dorm-room walls are “an onslaught of cerulean.” He sprinkles quotes from writers ranging from Aquinas to Robert Lowell, like an undergraduate eager to show off the scope of his erudition. Giraldi is often reflective and self-aware, but at other times he cannot avoid cliches such as “the cult of speed,” even writing, solemnly, that “I didn’t choose literature. . . . Literature, rather, chose me.”

The deeper problem is Giraldi’s uncertain relation to the values he inherited and then transcended. He sees how limiting and desperate his father’s code of rough maleness was and feels gratitude for having escaped it, yet his account of its relative merits is often defensive, even tetchy. (Early on, he urges the reader to move beyond “mocking and scorn” and to “start thinking of these men as part artist, part athlete, and not as drug-stuffed showboats.”)

It feels deeply ungenerous to say that a writer doesn’t understand the meaning of his own experience, but there is nonetheless something opaque about Giraldi’s hindsight. An ambivalence not elevated, by some miracle of consciousness or language, to the pitch of tragic paradox remains mere confusion. “The Hero’s Body” is the work of an admirable man striving mightily to make sense of his past, and almost succeeding.

Michael Lindgren reviews books regularly for The Washington Post.

The Hero’s Body

By William Giraldi

Liveright. 265 pp. $25.95