Thoughts: Foxcatcher: Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother’s Murder, John du Pont’s Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold, by Mark Schultz and David Thomas

Now that is a title.

I’m about six books behind in this because I’ve been been trying to get through some editing, so expect a regular drip of reviews for a while. I’m always a bit embarrassed to admit I’ve been prioritising my own writing over paying attention to other people’s books, because of course I’m just an unpublished hack on the internet, and all these books I’ve read, however dire I proclaim them to be, are Real Books, published by Real Publishers and sometimes hunted out of obscurity by Real Tastemakers. The drafts I ashamedly talk about working on are, to you, imaginary, abstract things which will never see the light of day, let alone be worthy of actual financial investment by a stranger. I’m keenly aware of this, and that’s why I’m often ashamed of talking about my writing here.

Except not this time.

Are you thinking of reading Foxcatcher? Don’t. Watch the film instead. If you’ve already seen the film, then congratulations! You have had the full Foxcatcher experience! Have a nice drink to celebrate.

I try not to let myself be influenced by other people’s opinions when I read books (unless I’ve picked it up because I read an interesting review or it was recommended by a friend) but it was impossible for me not to notice that Foxcatcher’s star rating on Goodreads was pretty bad. I don’t usually care about star ratings either (I’ve talked about my dissatisfaction with rating books on a five point universal scale before) but it was really quite unanimously bad. I skimmed some of the reviews just for fun, and then about three years passed before I actually downloaded the book on Kindle.

Weirdly, the Amazon reviews were almost all very high. Why the discrepancy? Genuinely no idea. I’ll leave that to wiser minds than mine.

I will stand up for Schultz and Thomas in precisely one issue that I saw brought up in the reviews. A reviewer complained that the word “dual” was used instead of “duel” consistently throughout the book, and this was a disgrace of editing etc. Problem is, a simple google will tell you that “wrestling duals” are a type of American scholastic wrestling match and the term is correct.

But this brings up two interesting points to note: a) the book is written in such a way that one assumes an unfamiliar word usage is a typo, and b) the book is being read by lots of non-wrestlers.

The writing style is definitely near the bottom of the spectrum of non-fiction writing for me. I can see how someone would assume mistake.

The non-wrestling audience is a whole other can of worms. People are reading this book because it has a dramatic title (Olympic gold! Murder! A crazy rich guy!) and it does not deliver. More recently they’re reading it because an Oscar-nominated film was made of it, let’s be honest. I doubt anyone outside the US, especially non-wrestling fans, had ever heard of these guys or this event before the film. The book does not know what it wants to be. What story is it telling? Is it about Dave Schultz’s life? Is it about the state of wrestling? Is it about the murder? Any of the things in the title?

No, it’s about Mark Schultz’s wrestling career.

The first half of the book covers his and Dave’s high school wrestling careers. High school wrestling, and if you’re American, you won’t understand how baffling and thoroughly uninteresting school sports are to the general population, but let me tell you. He doesn’t even mention John Du Pont, the eccentric murderer (who has frankly led a longer and more interesting life than Mark Schultz at this point…) until about halfway through, and then it’s just to sort of tease you. A quick intro chapter and then back into the world of Mark Schultz’s feelings about wrestling.

I’m a big believer in not kicking a book for not being what it isn’t, but when you title your book with a big “This is what the book’s about” sentence, then you have to either write the book about those things or expect the readers to be dissatisfied.

We hardly even get to see much of Dave Schultz in the book. Mark spends the whole time talking about himself: his own wrestling matches, his own feelings, his own wins and losses and that time he went off the rails a bit and that time he wrestled a uni campus security guard etc. Dave shows up in the background, as a naturally gifted wrestler who loved the sport, a solid kid who knew what he wanted and performed consistently on the mat, eclipsed from time to time by Mark’s obvious insecurity regarding him. That in itself could have made for an interesting story, but Mark is also very taciturn. He considers his teammates to be enemies, he refuses to engage in any good-sport interaction at tournaments and honestly seems like a nightmare to work with in any capacity. He measures girlfriends in terms of their hotness, hardly even deigning to name them, and only respects people who admire him. Coaches who like him even when he defeats their wrestlers, anyone he defeats who doesn’t lose their temper, basically anyone who he feels superior to.

This isn’t me speculating, by the way; the book is written from his perspective and these things are made very clear.

I wonder as well whether Mark’s being so hard to work with contributed to the state of the book. I kept thinking, why isn’t David Thomas talking to other people, trying to find anything out about Dave Schultz, about John Du Pont, about anything? and maybe the answer to that is that Mark wanted to control the story. OK, that’s me speculating.

You could see the strings as well in places, where Thomas had obviously asked Schultz to elaborate on a detail. When he listed some of the moves he’d invented (without explaining them, by the way) he added a funny name and it basically sounded like Thomas had suggested, “How about adding a funny one?”

So who was the audience? Possibly people who were big wrestling fans anyway, who were also interested in high school wrestling at that exact time period, though they honestly could have just looked up the scores themselves. It can’t have been people after the crime details, because that was essentially the very end of the book. It can’t have been people interested in the quest for Olympic Gold because we didn’t get to see much of that either. It can’t have been any kind of non-wrestling fans because though the basic rules of matches and weight classes (note that this is yet another sport in which the US actively compromises the health of its sporting young men for the sake of literally nothing, by the way) are explained, Schultz describes matches in very dry, technical ways that make no sense to a layperson.

The book is sort of interesting if you read it as the account of a middling-to-good athlete in an incredibly competitive and financially neglected field. So many of the sports stories we read are of the exceptions and the exceptional, and it’s legitimately interesting to see what it’s like for someone who doesn’t have that magic touch.

It feels like it’s been a long time since I read this book (no one’s fault but mine) so I’ve probably forgotten a lot, but I’ll end this ranty review of an incoherent mess of a book with one last detail I remember. So Schultz says his brother invented some chokehold by which he choked out his opponent and then scored on him that way. Mark started using it all the time as well, and eventually the move was banned. Schultz is of the opinion that the move was too good and the judges were biased. The move was too good. That was definitely the reason.

I just can’t. I can’t. Just watch the film.

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