August 21, 2011, $2.99 (Kindle)
Review by Darkeva
There’s something unique and inimitable about the blend of pageantry, circus-like attractions, soap opera-ish storylines, and the savagery of professional and amateur wrestling that continues to attract millions of fans. Some say it’s the energy behind such classic feuds as Andre the Giant vs. Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels, and The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin that provides the draw for people to watch two men build heat that escalates until the ultimate payoff — when they meet in the ring and exchange blows to determine a victor. Others claim it’s a throwback to the gladiators who brutalized each other for sport — that people have a latent attraction to violence, something that’s also used to describe the explosive popularity of mixed martial arts. Although the big fish, World Wrestling Entertainment, has taken on a more PG approach in recent years to the dismay of many, wrestling remains one of the most popular forms of sports entertainment.
For readers familiar with Goon by Edward Lee and John Pelan, a thriller set in the underworld of wrestling, Death Match by Jason Ridler will be like a breath of fresh air, a truly apt recommendation of what to read next once one has finished Goon. Like Lee and Pelan’s novel, Death Match is equal parts gritty and violent, but it’s also a disturbing emotionally complex rollercoaster ride of death, mayhem, and destruction.
The protagonist, Spar, represents an authentic and interesting fusion between the worlds of punk rock and wrestling. As Spar puts it, he covers the weirder side of the news while working at a bookstore to pay the bills. One of the things he covers is local wrestling matches, particularly those involving his best friend, Ray, or as he’s known in the ring, Clown Royale. When the novel starts, Ray is in a match, which seems to be going well until a he unexpectedly dies.
Spar battles with the local paper to make sure Ray gets proper coverage of his death that’s respectful of his memory and doesn’t paint him to be a laughing stock, but soon the battle becomes to investigate what really happened to Ray, and to find out the reasons behind his mysterious and sudden death.
It’s sad to witness the downward spiral that Spar’s life takes on after Ray’s death, particularly because he has been trying to fix the shattered pieces of his life only to disintegrate further as he finds out the ugliness of the truth behind his friend’s demise.
Although everyone is quick to point out that wrestling is “fake” or “scripted,” wrestlers do take pretty big bumps and the risk of injury is all too real. The world of wrestling is no stranger to tragic deaths of performers from Owen Hart to Eddie Guerrero and several others, and soon, finding out the cause of Ray’s death consumes Spar. He becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth, no matter what the cost to him.
We soon learn that Ray’s hero, a wrestler called the Bullet, killed his former partner, the Gladiator, and now someone suggests the Bullet may have had a hand in Ray’s demise, and that it wasn’t a heart attack that felled him as the doctors claimed. And although Bullet has several attributes that would make him a suspect in Ray’s death, there’s more to this story than initially comes through on the surface.
No matter where Spar goes, he encounters the vestiges of his past misdeeds, which, although they seem to make him ashamed, don’t make him necessarily apologetic, something that rings true for the character. And although things reach a timely and satisfactory resolution, there’s still a hint of unease in the air for Spar.
Ridler definitely knows his wrestling stuff when it comes to the terminology and the history, something that lends a high dose of realism to the novel, but that also conveys that he cares about his subject matter, something that makes Death Match that much more engaging of a book. You don’t need to be a wrestling fan to enjoy the story or to follow the plot, but Ridler helpfully includes pointers on some wrestling lingo non-wrestling fans may not be familiar with, which I found was a nice touch. If you’ve always wished that wrestling and horror would mix, Death Match is the answer to your prayers.