Book Review: Chad Dundas’ ‘Champion of the World’

Americanism is an amorphous idea. The concept varies person to person and has no doubt changed over time. Yet there is still something immovable and essential about it, so much so that it continues to exist at the center point of culture and politics despite meaning completely different things to different people. The definitive American virtues, however, in all their manifestations, boil down to similar ideas: stubborn individualism, rugged adventurism and hope to make a new, better life for oneself.

These ideas find a unique home in “Champion of the World,” the debut novel from Bleacher Report lead MMA writer Chad Dundas. Through the lives of down-and-out former wrestling champion Pepper Van Dean -- back when professional wrestling was still legitimate competition -- and his wife Moira, Dundas unravels the layers of the American spirit in a vivid pre-Depression setting.

We meet the Van Dean’s as part of a backwoods traveling circus, where Pepper performs dangerous stunts and wrestles audience members for spare change while Moira cheats drunken yokels on the poker table. After a particularly confrontational night, they find themselves on their own in the middle of the Oregon woods. Having no real alternatives, they accept a dubious offer to train Garfield Taft, a talented African-American wrestler fresh off a publicized bid in prison. Taft’s goal: to become the undisputed heavyweight wrestling champion.

From there, the story unfolds in a series of twists that breathe air into a panoply of well-defined characters and provides legitimate historical context, not only to the sport of wrestling itself but to the temperament of the country that saw it become a form of business entertainment. It’s a gripping narrative that never lets go once it gets its hooks in.

For all but the most diehard fans, wrestling tends to exist in one of two phases: as the ancient, Olympic competition or as its modern iteration on cable and pay-per-view. “Champion of the World” places itself in the intermission. As such, the transition from sport to spectacle looms like the Cheshire Cat’s grin over Pepper’s circumstances. “Some people might be wise to it,” it’s explained, “but they won’t care. These working stiffs just want an excuse to get out of the house for an evening. We’ll give them the whole shebang -- the drama, the excitement -- it’ll be like moving pictures come to life.” These words ring true now but make even more sense considering the economic climate of the era.

Though the novel concludes at nearly 500 pages, there is almost no wasted space. The story is broken down into readable chunks of 10-15 pages, and the overall plot construction is seamless; every detour is meaningful, every detail pays off.

Perhaps what is most impressive about Dundas’ execution is how effortlessly the storylines build off of each other. He gets tremendous mileage from the omniscient third-person point of view, a traditional way to construct a story that somehow feels fresh. Through it, the reader hovers over several different characters, spotting their idiosyncratic tells in ways the characters themselves seem unaware of. In a novel that orbits around various deceptions -- small and large, from poker tables and wrestling matches to racial discrimination and mafia business dealings -- it’s a perfect storytelling device, and it is flawlessly deployed.

Near the midpoint of the novel, Taft’s wife, Carol Jean, says to Moira Van Dean: “There’s no telling what these men understand from one moment to the next. Their whole lives are a giant game of tag, all about who got who last, everybody keeping score in their heads all the time.” This is a major component of how the story maintains its velocity: through unrelenting crosses and double-crosses.

On one hand, the interplay of wrestlers and gangsters makes for an authentic, electrifying noir atmosphere that permeates every aspect of the story; Dundas writes with a pinstriped tommy-gun style of prose. On the other hand, some of the surprises are more easily predictable than others. This is less a flaw than an inevitability in a story of such mass, but even when you see where the storyline is going to stutter-step in a different direction, the how and the why are less transparent.

“Champion of the World” is a story of wildly different people at varying stages of life fighting the same fights -- to do what’s honest or to do what’s lucrative, to defy the odds or to succumb to them, to be the catalyst of change or the victim of it. It’s a genuine, American story, as hopeful and heartrending as the best wrestling matches can be. Though the thematic elements of Americanism are definitely present, they reside in the subtext. Mostly, what Dundas sets out to do is tell a damn good story, and in that he more than succeeds.

There are countless classics in literature and film about boxing, from Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates to “Raging Bull” and “Rocky.” Romanticizing violence is nothing new, and the looming potential of a sudden knockout lends itself more to cinematic storytelling than to the slow, grinding mechanics of wrestling. Dundas doesn’t buy into that, and neither should you. The book brims with wrestling scenes, and the action is as visceral as any depiction of pugilism on the screen or the page. That’s why the greatest achievement of “Champion of the World” is in carving out its own space as one of the first great wrestling novels.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.

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