by Tom Dolan
451 pp. (Fiction)
Given the general dearth of bodybuilding fiction, I began reading Killer Body with high hopes. The hefty book is actually a collection of three distinct works: two novels and a collection of short stories, all about bodybuilders. There's definitely a common style: author Tom Dolan is committed to describing every character's lats as "blocking out the sun," and all of his lead characters are essentially the same decent, laid-back guy. But on a narrative level, the novels and stories all stand alone.
Although the novel's premise has satiric potential, problems abound in the execution. Dolan strives for a "hardcore" atmosphere by monotonously describing each LA. denizen as impossibly huge, and through frequent incidents of shocking brutality. But despite the bodybuilding window-dressing, there's no depth to the parody. In fact, Dolan actively shies away from cutting too deep. For example, he spends a lot of time establishing the existence of a tribe of cannibalistic sub-human bodybuilders who live beneath the streets of L.A. This would seem a ripe lens through which to mock self-absorbed physique athletes, but instead, Dolan simply trots them out for a rote action climax. Even beyond these missed opportunities, the b-movie plot is forgettable: the villain's plan doesn't make sense, and Hacker, the nominal hero, is largely incidental to the story.
"Strictly Hardcore," the next section of Killer Body, is a collection of "bodybuilders in the Twilight Zone" short stories. The basic concepts and writing are good, but the stories are one-note; much as with "Deadlift," there's little to each tale beyond a single basic theme. And it again feels like Dolan is being a little lazy; indeed, two of the stories have the exact same twist.
But even if there are few surprises, Dolan keeps up a rapid pace; the stories go by too fast to become boring (indeed, some end a bit too abruptly). And a couple stand out from the pack, including "Goliath," about a haunted multi-station weight-machine (think Stephen King's Christine set in a gym). "Strictly Hardcore" is not great, but it has its simple pleasures, and is a significant improvement upon "Deadlift."
The eponymous "Killer Body" novel rounds out the volume. Where "Deadlift" and "Strictly Hardcore" were high-concept, "Killer Body" is the opposite: a quiet and picaresque relationship novel. It follows several years in the life of Mike Bowman, a recreational bodybuilder, professional journalist, and autobiographical stand-in for Dolan himself, and his friendships with other amateur and professional bodybuilders. There's little plot or conflict; rather, the focus is almost entirely on character and conversation.
Which is why I'm surprised by how much I truly enjoyed "Killer Body." It's among the best bodybuilding novels I've read—a small group to be sure, but that doesn't make my affection for this one any less genuine. Dolan dispenses with the gimmickry of "Deadlift" and "Strictly Hardcore" but keeps the brisk pace; it's fun to get to know these characters, and even if not much happens, we move along quickly.
Moreover, Dolan's years of reporting for bodybuilding magazines (he wrote for Muscular Development and Muscle Training Illustrated, among others) pays off. Some of the bodybuilders we meet may be a bit shallow, but they also seem real, and their stories and fates are affecting. And the discussions they have—about the bodybuilding lifestyle, and how much focus and dedication is too much—likewise feel genuine. I usually enjoy plot-driven stories much more than laid-back character pieces. But here, the subtle charms of "Killer Body" are the absolute highlight of the collection.