Author Box Brown starts his novel "Andre the Giant: Life and Legend” with a short essay. It describes the blurry line between fact and fiction in the world where Andre the Giant lived.
"The culture of professional wrestling is, in some ways, built upon mass deception. It’s no wonder it’s often a misunderstood business."
That’s why the title of Brown’s book makes sense. Andre the Giant’s life is legend. The stories about him always seem just a little too good to be true. But then you think about his size — seven feet and five inches, 500-plus pounds — and you can’t help but believe it.
The most infamous legend is of Andre drinking 117 beers in one sitting. That’s enough to kill a man. But Andre wasn’t a man. He was a giant. And maybe a giant could really drink that much.
If there is one constant about his life, he definitely liked his alcohol.
While the crazier stories are amazing, they aren’t what draws you into the book. Rather, it is the intimate look into what it feels like being a giant.
For Andre, nothing fits. Doors are too short. Bathrooms are too small. People point. Some try to pick fights. Others run.
Brown says he wasn’t concerned about being completely accurate in drawing Andre the Giant's actual size in his novel. He just wanted to make him the biggest thing in every panel, on every page, or in every room.
“I wanted people to get the feel of how enormous he was and how big his presence was,” Brown says. “It helps when you put regular-sized objects in his hand and they look really small.”
One chapter encapsulated this for me. It was the uneasy appearance Andre the Giant made on the David Letterman show.
Watching the segment after reading the book changes the way you watch it. People laughed, but many of the jokes weren’t jokes. Andre seemingly answered the questions honestly. And that’s the trouble with living a semi-fictional existence — people don’t know when to take you seriously.
What Andre did take seriously was his trade.
Professional wrestling is fake. World Wrestling Entertainment, the dominant league in the US, admitted this several years ago to avoid paying sports-related fees. But the performers go to great lengths and do real harm to their bodies to provide fans a wonderful show.
Brown says that Andre could work a crowd like no other. He got them to cheer when he wanted them to cheer. He could get boos when he took the role of the villain, or what’s known in the industry as “the heel.”
I even remember being afraid of Andre the Giant as a kid. He’d look coldly into the camera and make threats to his opponents. When in character, there was no better wrestler.
Hulk Hogan looks campy in comparison. Macho Man Randy Savage couldn’t escape his inner crazy, caffeinated ridiculousness. The Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase was always a bit too cocky for his own good. And Virgil, he always looked sad.
But Andre the Giant was always Andre the Giant. For better or worse, he was a character actor who played an inflated version of himself. Just take a look at him doing early promotional shots with the announcer Mean Gene Okerlund:
Like Brown, I’m just happy I had the opportunity to see Andre the Giant battle Hogan in WrestleMania III. (I checked out the VHS months after its initial airing. I knew who won, who lost. But the match was still incredible.)
Andre the Giant rode out in a motorized mini-wrestling ring. It's was part pomp, part precaution. Few, myself included, knew that Andre the Giant was still recovering from back surgery at the time and organizers needed a back-up plan in case he couldn't walk out after the match.
In the novel, Brown details it panel by panel. He says he wanted the reader to actually understand the artifice inside the ring.
On face value, it looks like two men fighting in spandex. But when Brown breaks it down, you see that it’s an improvisation between two men, both masters of their craft, manipulating the emotions of 93,000 people inside the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, and millions more on television. WWE used the match to launch Hulk Hogan into super-stardom.
“That night, Hogan became a god,” Brown writes. “And Andre made it happen.”
I read that passage last night, after inhaling much of the book in one sitting. You can’t stop turning the pages, much like you can’t look away when a giant is in your presence.
Put the novel in the league of the very best sports writing. Measure it to anything produced by George Plimpton, David Halberstam or J.R. Moehringer.
It’s a novel that makes you feel the emotions of a man larger than life. And Brown found a new appreciation for Andre the Giant as he completed his novel.
“I think of him as a master artist," he says. "And I think of him as a tragic figure who maybe didn’t fit into this world. He had a very difficult life. But I think he and other wrestlers need to be appreciated as artists.”
Late in a short life — he died at 46 — Andre the Giant turned in an unforgettable performance in the film, "The Princess Bride." He played Fezzik. And more than two decades later, people still quote his line about peanuts.
As rumor has it, Andre the Giant racked up a $40,000 bar tab on the set. We can't verify that. It's just one more story to add to the list.