Whenever the topic of favorite books comes up in conversation, there are usually an obscure pick or two that get mentioned — forgotten books published decades ago, foreign writers whose poorly translated volumes sit lonely on library shelves. But sometimes an unfamiliar beloved novel is by a writer in your own backyard and isn’t even all that old, which is the case for one of my favorites, a book that I mention frequently and is usually met with a blank, unknowing look: “Never heard of that one.” Well, you should have heard of it. The book is “Pullers” by Tom Graves.
Probably the only novel ever written about the sport of arm wrestling (participants refer to themselves as “pullers,”), Graves’ book is a written with a perceptive satirical eye that winks and draws our attention to everything we love and despise about combat sports, especially third-tier barroom varieties like arm wrestling, so often promoted by small town cons and greedy venue owners. Graves is a Memphis writer who is best known for his biography of blues legend Robert Johnson and his interview and photographs of Harry Crews in the late 1970s. I can’t help but wonder whether — if he were writing “Pullers” today — his milieu would be the lower regional ranks of mixed martial arts.
The success of a comic novel is not found in the jokes and gags the writer is able to pull off, but the ability of the writer to carve out an exaggerated, bloated and asymmetric universe that is wholly believable and that we can — despite the endless folly that’s so often the fate of comedic characters — recognize our own culpability and recklessness.
The novel opens with an arm wrestling contest at Bad Bill’s Hawg Trawf in Pine Bluff. It’s won by Scud Matthews, who makes his grand entrance at the event pulling a much smaller man on a leash, both wearing T-shirts that read: “We’re Queer Dear.”
Carroll Thurston, the main character, gave up a promising career in advertising for a bartending gig to pay the bills so he could pursue his dream to be a championship puller. Graves does an admirable job of describing the intricacies at play in an arm wrestling contest: the various grips, the use of leverage, the different strategies. As the novel plays out, we meet other pullers, each with his own gimmick or memorable quirk, as they compete and make their way to the world competition in St. Louis. Thurston falls in love, befriends a wheelchair sprinter, and the competitors exact various shenanigans on each other in order to gain advantage.
The raw materials of the novel are dipped straight from the Southern gothic well. Thurston states it plainly: “The champions you see here today have a lot more in common with a three-legged man than the guy at home watching this on TV. See, we’re all freaks. Freaks of nature.” At times, though, there’s a lighter touch at work. When Steve Strong, a burned out physical wreck suffering from the effects of years of heavy steroid abuse, attempts a comeback by using a new steroid drug, he ends up drowning in his bathtub while suffering a stroke. The scene, horrendous on its surface, is written in a detached, deadpanned way reminiscent of Donald Westlake, especially when you consider Strong’s last earthly thought: remembering an erotic drug encounter. People often get what they deserve, and like it or not, sometimes it’s hilarious.
There are no central crimes at play that would make this a bona fide crime novel, though like many works of fiction, “Pullers” contains a criminal subtext — intentional mismanagement of prize money, questionable characters sponsoring events. In the end, though, it’s a novel about everyday characters with singular gifts and not much else. It’s written from their eye level, and no trick is too unsavory, no character too loathsome. I can’t think of a better ending for such a volatile and hazardous novel than this famous TV clip — a chair flying across a television screen busting Geraldo Rivera’s nose, the book’s chief players laughing their asses off.