A 1972 novel recently re-released, Rosalyn Drexler’s To Smithereens plays with fact and imagination, memoir and fiction, in ways seldom seen in her own era.
Today it’s common for authors to play with reality, memory, and fiction in their writing, but it wasn’t always that way. In the genre of memoir, which evolved from autobiography, writers found refuge from nonfiction’s more inflexible building blocks—facts, for example. But the publishing industry hasn’t always allowed such shenanigans. In the past, memoirists who strayed too far into imagination—through composite characters, recreated events, or multiple points of view—found their books sidelined as fiction. Usually, writers had good reasons for taking that hit and did so to make an artistic point. Sometimes the point was well-founded; other times, ill-conceived. A good example of the latter is Rosalyn Drexler’s 1972 novel To Smithereens, which loosely chronicles the author’s adventures as a lady wrestler: Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire.
Republished this fall by Brooklyn Rail Books and Black Square Editions, Drexler’s novel opens in a darkened movie theatre as Rosa crushes the fingers of a man who is groping her thigh. The man, Paul, reveals himself as an art critic and lady wrestling enthusiast; before long, he and Rosa start a relationship. The opening scenes act out themes that become the novel’s central concerns: sex and sexism, eroticism and domination, play, curiosity, and violence. Perhaps most strikingly, these scenes begin a pattern of intimate moments acted out in communal spaces. This private-public dichotomy speaks to wrestling as a performance, or to any kind of art and its corresponding business. Plus, the trope gives the story some of its stranger moments, as when Paul allows several sets of disembodied hands to pleasure him during a public art exhibition:
My bare buttocks were swarmed upon with kisses and pinches. One hand…a human hand, free to grope me from the opening at the bottom of the box, snaked around and took my sex in its bare fist! I was terrified…what if there were hidden cameras?…what if the hand belonged to the male gender?…what if I enjoyed it?…I rigidly opposed the flood of pleasurable sensations which threatened to overcome me. I grabbed the loving hand to stop it…but found that I was helping it instead.
As disturbing as some of the book’s incidents appear, Drexler keeps the writing light-hearted throughout. Before long, Rosa and Paul decide to break into the wrestling industry—Rosa as a performer, Paul as a journalist who writes for Boots Jackson, a sleazy editor and publisher. Vivid personalities circle these two characters, waiting for their chance to join in the action. This ragtag bunch reads like realistic cartoons, and calls to mind other writers working in the 1970s (such as John Gardner or James Tillotson Whitehead); however, their over-the-top behavior doesn’t preclude Drexler from sometimes pivoting to show a more human, emotional side, as when Bobby Fox recounts the death of his daughter, a wrestler who died during a match against the fearsome Tommy J. Jukes.
You would have liked her, Rosa. She wasn’t anything like Verne Vavoom. She wasn’t wild. She didn’t have a mean streak in her. She was a sweetie pie, but that didn’t save her, because she didn’t pay attention to the health and safety rules of wrestling. Her name…Jane Bart Fox. Her age…eighteen. Cause of death…ruptured stomach. That’s what they told me, and I believed it, because she stuffed herself like a pig.
Bobby Fox’s voice, though, is just one of many. In the end, To Smithereens assaults readers with many voices and styles—letters, limericks, film transcripts, faux journalism, and multiple first-person narrators—but in most cases the disparate forms don’t seem to serve the story. No conceit binds the techniques or pins the book together thematically; no logic dictates whether an event is told one way or another. The fragments do offer some insight into Rosa and Paul’s relationship, but the novel as a whole ends up lacking a cohesive structure. Despite these problems, To Smithereens contains plenty of stiffs, squashes, and spots that bring the novel in for a clean finish. Drexler has written hundreds of beautiful sentences and detailed many unique situations; she’s an accomplished writer. However, it remains unclear why To Smithereens has to exist as a novel and not, say, as true nonfiction. What does make-believe offer that’s more strange or terrifying than real life? The answer may be nothing at all, because there’s no formula for telling exactly how much of Drexler’s life experience translates to the page in To Smithereens. It’s possible, if she had tried to sell the book as a fact-based autobiography, no one would have believed in the authenticity of the world she brings to life.