Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer The Wide World of Arm Banging

By Leonard Gill

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  There was an article about it a few weeks ago in The Village Voice,” a local writer by the name of Tom Graves was telling me. “It’s popular in New York City right now. It’s become the newest vogue sort of deal. The guy who wrote the article was training and practicing out with some guys and he actually won against a couple of them. He obviously had some talent, and he was doing it, and – bang! – his arm snapped. He tried to make out that it was bad but not as bad as all that.”

“Does this sort of thing happen often, this arm-snapping?”

“Happens all the time,” Graves answered matter of factly, and of anyone, he should know. His new, first novel, Pullers (Hastings House, 192 pp., $21), is all about it, “it” being the sport – and in some cases the art – of arm wrestling, from midnight matches inside Bad Bill’s Hawg Trawf in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to championship rounds in glitzy hotels sponsored by the sport’s professional arm, the Professional Arm Wrestling Association.

The book then is nothing if not a learning experience, and under the category “sport,” we learn that big-time arm wrestlers (once called “arm bangers,” now called “pullers”) come freakishly equipped with 20-inch forearms and at their beefiest weigh in at or way beyond the 300-pound mark. Matches, called “pulls,” last typically in the time it takes for an eye to blink. (Graves quickly dismisses the protracted arm-wrestling scene in The Old Man and the Sea with “that’s not going to happen.”)

Sister to the category “sport” is the category “art” in the form of an arm wrestler’s brand of psych-out, which leaves pullers real room for personal expression. In the novel, the psych-out can be based on creative costuming, as in the case of champion Scud Matthews from New Orleans, who likes to show up wearing nothing but a pair of leather chaps, a jock strap, and a T-shirt reading “WE’RE QUEER DEAR,” or in other instances on the ultimate gross-out, as in the case of Memphis bartender Carroll Thurston, the book’s one, all-round good guy and respected puller, who enjoys chewing on handfuls of live but high-class cockroaches before his dumb-struck challenger. Art, however, can only go so far. One sorry specimen actually downs a quart of Quaker State Motor Oil, projectile-vomits seconds later onto a group of horrified spectators, and promptly forfeits his bid for heavyweight arm-wrestling champion of the world.

Failing sport and art, you have two options: the tender joint between your opponent’s thumb and forefinger (which, under full pressure from you, renders him helpless) or a full-out wrenching of your matchmate’s bonework (which renders him in a lot of very distracting pain). Either strategy will leave you winner and the crowd who gambled on you satisfied that what they’ve just witnessed is the meanest testosterone in town.

Which leads to quite another sort of crowd: the students in the summer writing workshop at Bennington College in Vermont, which Graves attended in 1996 – the same students who helped him see this project through to an eventual publisher, even if they didn’t know a lick about serious pulling.

Since he received his undergraduate degree in journalism in the mid-’70s from then-Memphis State, Graves has worked as a book reviewer (as he continues to do on occasion for The New York Times and The Washington Post), as a profiler (as he did in the early ’90s for this newspaper on an author he admires greatly, Harry Crews), as an ad copywriter, and as editor and publisher of Rock & Roll Disc (from 1987-1992). But in Graves’ words, “Bennington changed my life.”

“I was pretty despondent about Pullers, but I took the manuscript with me and it was writers’ heaven. Everybody there was engaged in writing, serious to the max, wanting to get stuff going and trying to recognize other peoples’ stuff. I was concentrating on the nonfiction I had with me. Well, these people heard about this book on arm wrestling and up there in Vermont in the mountains. …

“Here we’re surrounded by Memphis people. We don’t realize what exotic birds we really are. When they heard a 6’4” 250-give-or-take-a-pound guy and he’s talking about Memphis and arm wrestling, they were so supportive. I would read aloud the nonfiction I had, and they’d say that was good, but read from Pullers. They and the teachers thought I really ought to keep going with it. So I did. I knew then I wanted to market it, try to sell it myself. I don’t have a whole stack of manuscripts in my closet. I do one thing and I try to do it the best I can, and unless I come to the conclusion that I’ve failed in some way, I’m going to keep it going.”

This is after Graves had spent the better part of a year writing it, after the better part of another year getting an agent, and after that agent shopped it, and would only shop it, to the top 20 publishers who, each in turn, turned Pullers down.

“The drumbeat I kept hearing was, ‘We like your book, but we don’t know how we can market the subject.’ But if they can market a book on horse whispering, I kept asking myself, why can’t they market a book on this?”

Barney Rosset, the guy behind famous Grove Press from way back when, must have had the same thought. Rosset picked up Pullers for his small imprint Blue Moon, but several broken deals later under several different publishing heads, United Publishers Group and its imprint Hastings House won the rights.

But enough with the publishing. Back to and why arm wrestling?

“It goes back to the ’70s,” Graves said. “I remember seeing it on Wide World of Sports. These huge guys with these huge arms. I’m not into team sports. They bore me. But the oddball sport of arm wrestling … my imagination began playing with it, researching it, and I started a file folder on it just in case. And then in ’93 a guy by the name of Gerald Beatty who worked for MLGW had come back from Japan after winning the super heavyweight. I called him up and then all these things started coming together. People sent me tapes and I studied them. There’s one book on the sport, a book on regulations, and the Memphis Public Library has two copies of it! I used it to make sure everything was spot-on even though, no, I’ve never actually seen a match in person. There aren’t many organized, but they may have something going over there in Jonesboro.”

Graves has something going on in Pullers too, and no, even he’s not so sure what it is.

“I don’t know if you can call it genre fiction because I can’t think what genre it fits into. I do know I wanted it to be kind of a cross between Wide World of Sports and Reservoir Dogs, with some wit to it, some sharp satire. And I wanted it to be like a rocket sled, quick, from the minute you start it. The language like a blunt object. No embroidery.

“I came from a blue-collar background. Parkway Village, the Sheffield side, not the Wooddale side. Sheffield was a step down. But I didn’t live the hardscrabble life my folks did in Pine Bluff. They were staunch Southern Baptists, so we were in church all the time. And in spite of all their talk about joy, there was definitely not a surplus of it. But sometimes my teachers in Sunday School would get off their kick and they’d tell stories. I used to delight in these stories, especially mule stories. The same kind of great mule stories Harry Crews has in his memoirs. So when people talk about Southern Lit and Walker Percy, I say Walker Percy’s experiences in life – the uppercrusty, landed-gentry stuff – had nothing to do with mine.”

What then about the unnatural fear that haunts Graves’ character Carroll Thurston, who, for all his strength in a sport that seems to ask for it, is petrified of broken bodies, of the permanently crippled? Does that have nothing to do Graves’ experiences in life?

“The incident inside the former Crippled Children’s Home on Lamar that I describe in Pullers is one of the few autobiographical details in the book. I do remember going in as a Cub Scout and a kid off the hallway obviously wanting to talk and inching his way toward me. I could hear his metal braces, and it kind of freaked me out. You could see the pain in this kid’s eyes, and it sunk in pretty deep. What this means in Pullers, I don’t know, but in a book about people who are almost inhumanly strong, it’s a vivid image. When you’re writing, this thing opens up in you, you start culling through it. It’s a weird process unlike the nonfiction I do. The dialogue and characters just come and that may be the miracle of the thing.

“I don’t know how Memphians are going to react to the book. The stuff, for example, on Voodoo Village. Is it there any more? We shouldn’t get out of this century without Voodoo Village being in something. And the hill on Dwight Road in the old Charjean neighborhood which I use in the book … I used to think, man, I would love to get on a bicycle or skateboard – skateboards were new back in those days – and go down that hill. Every now and then, I’ll drive back over there, and the hill’s not as big as all that.”

Maybe, but it could still probably snap an arm.

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