I recently gave a reading from my new novel, 'The Sugar Frosted Nutsack,' at KGB, a bar in downtown Manhattan. The very next morning, thanks to Google Alerts, I was made aware that a gentleman by the name of Edward Champion had blogged about the reading and included the following observation: "[Leyner] is a 56-year-old man who really wishes he were 26, and he writes prose with the depth and maturity of a 26-year-old writer, and he even dresses this way: black tee to show off his long hours at a gym." Indifferent to the blunt put-down of my oeuvre (somewhat elaborated as the review proceeds), I found the allusion to my torso immensely flattering, and immediately forwarded the link to my wife and daughter. Such is the intractable vanity of the gym rat.
How long have I been laboring under great weights? And wandering back and forth in a dissociative fugue from incline press bench to lat pull-down machine to dumbbell rack? Ever since 1969 – the year the one we called Broadway Joe led the New York Jets to a guaranteed victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, the year of my bar mitzvah, the year I offered my ID bracelet to the only girl in seventh grade who was shorter than I was, the one we called Shelly Ullman...
As a child, I'd emulated two subspecies of men in my family: the luftmensch (the feckless intellectual with his glasses and his milky coffee and his arcane kabbalistic ruminations) and the shtarker (the tough, swaggering, street-savvy hustler whose murky "business" remained his own impenetrable mystery but who always had a thick wad of cash in one pocket and cryptic papers in the other, and who sat on his stoop in the twilight like a potentate in a wife-beater). I had been a sensitive, poetic, delicate-limbed little boy straight out of an A.A. Milne story, someone who spoke in a whispery voice to animals but cringed at the approach of other human beings.
But secretly I was drawn to 'Sgt. Rock' comics, Sonny Liston, Robert Mitchum (especially as Max Cady in the original Cape Fear), dubbed Italian gladiator movies, and Leni Riefenstahl propaganda. (I was 13 when I was introduced to her films, ironically enough in Hebrew school, as a form of aversion therapy, although the plain fact is that thousands of synchronized, leather-swaddled thugs massed in a zeppelin field have a universal appeal to pubescent boys of all creeds.) I think when Shelly Ullman accepted my coy, barely audible offer to "go steady" and put my bracelet on her chubby little wrist, effectively cutting off the blood flow to her hand and fingers, a deluge of testosterone was released through my quivering, sylphlike body.
Suddenly, more than anything, I wanted a savage, metal body and longed for the fascistic mise-en-scène of the gym. (At the time, of course, I wasn't yet conversant in all this psycho-ideological jargon, but even then I had an intuitive understanding of the key syntactical elements of the gym: Flesh, Muscle, Vein, Steel, Mirror.) I began to abide by the adage homo homini lupus – "man is a wolf to man."
I read and reread Gabriele d'Annunzio's 1910 novel Forse che sì, forse che no (Maybe Yes, Maybe No), whose aviator hero says that he doesn't know which pleases him most, "to spill sperm or to spill blood." (I'd been introduced to d'Annunzio – among other literary exponents of hypervirility – by a handsome, vaguely sinister mechanical-drawing instructor in junior high school.) Like d'Annunzio and other men I came to admire (e.g., my uncle Jack, who ruled his Jersey City stoop by day in pomaded black hair and a wife-beater and habituated Manhattan clubs by night in elegant dark suits with exotic women draped on his arm), I began to pursue the synthesis of aesthete and warmaker. And the laboratory in which, with cold, clinical detachment, I have observed the oscillation between these two poles – the metronome of my own masculinity – is the gym.
It's long been a running joke among my inner circle (which, thanks to my growing paranoia and vindictiveness, now consists, in its entirety, of my wife and my daughter) that at any given moment, I'm either at or on the way to or from the gym. Because I'm so reluctant to talk on the phone (I believe other writers eavesdrop on my calls in order to steal my ideas), I typically use the demurral "I can't really talk now, I'm at the gym" or "Listen, I gotta run, this guy's about to get on my machine," even if I'm actually lolling on the couch in my living room, dozing to Teen Mom or Ice Road Truckers.
I have supersetted myself through the past four decades, prowling gyms for two hours a day, six days a week, moving relentlessly from flat dumbbell bench presses to wide-grip pull-downs to cable crossovers and seated hammer-strength rows. I've missed weddings, funerals, and Thanksgiving dinners because they've conflicted with my workout schedule. Three hours after the birth of my daughter, I was doing a set of incline dumbbell flys. I've negotiated script deals, talked ex-girlfriends off the ledge, and received biopsy results at the gym. And the truth remains that, at this point in my life, there's almost nothing of any value that I can't do better at the gym than anywhere else. Most of my most august work is undertaken there, as I tap away on the tiny keyboard of my smartphone. I composed significant passages of my latest novel between supersets of triceps cable pushdowns. And I do most of my serious tweeting from the gym. In fact, my very first tweet ever was composed there as I watched Whitney Houston's funeral: "Watched live coverage of a funeral on elliptical at the gym. Per display: Burnt 308 calories & am now 45 minutes closer to my own death."
Why this instinctual, ratlike Dawn of the Dead tropism toward the gym? With its echo chamber of mirrored images and ricocheting sight lines, awash in the semiotics of virility, its weights and machines providing unforgiving calibrations of one's ever waxing and waning vigor, the gym has always enabled me to reassure myself – at least for an hour or so at a time – that I'm still one rough, tough, buff, totally smokin' motherfucker.
As a small man, I have that bantam, Napoleonic, compensatory compulsion to yap a lot of truculent shit, swagger, and swing my dick around. Where, though? The venues for compensatory shit-yapping and dick-swinging are becoming fewer and farther between than ever. Unless you're fortunate enough to be a Navy SEAL or an MMA fighter or employed in the Chittagong ship-breaking yard in Bangladesh, there's hardly any place anymore where a little guy can authentically wage that ultimately futile but heroic struggle against primordial forces of nature (i.e., mass and gravity). Except the gym, which, like some ancient, sacralized stage, enables us to ritualistically reenact the glorious deeds of a nobler race of swaggering