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The Body Shop: Parties, Pills, and Pumping Iron -- Or, My Life in the Age of Muscle by Paul Solotaroff

By Mrs. Smith. | Books | February 2, 2011 |

By Mrs. Smith. | Books | February 2, 2011 |

When I checked this book out from the library, I thought it would be a low-brow story of a guy who gets hooked on steroids, becomes a stripper to support his juice habit, bottoms out and is redeemed. And it is, except it’s not.

Paul Solotaroff is actually a pretty smart, well-educated guy who’s had an interesting, off-beat life and who also happens to write really, really well. This is his second book (the other is Group which I would now like to read) and it tells the story of Solotaroff’s two years of steroid use, and stripping to supplement his income, all the while trying to maintain a “normal” relationship with a girlfriend and get his college degree in English Lit. As you might imagine, it doesn’t work out too well.

Growing up, Paul was a skinny, Jewish kid with asthma. He didn’t have a lot of friends and wasn’t terribly popular. His father and mother were both literary types, heavily involved in their work. His parents divorced and he lived with both parents off and on as his mother’s mental health deteriorated. He didn’t have good relationships with either one, as his father repeatedly married and his mother blamed Paul and his brother for her inability to cope with life.

When Paul goes off to college, he’s fairly aimless, with little self-confidence and zero percent chance of “scoring with the chicks.” This is the mid-70s and Paul’s nebbish attempts to fit in are met with cold stares. He falls in with a pot-smoking roommate and things just bump along in a hazy, smoky grind.

One day Paul notices a guy in his dorm, sauntering down the hallway in only a towel; he sports six-pack abs and massive arms and legs, in a time when the only people who “worked out” were football players and muscle men on Venice Beach. Something clicks and Paul decides he will start lifting weights, so that he too can look like an Adonis. It’s a long slippery slope but it doesn’t take long before Solotaroff is shooting up home-cooked steroids and looking for the next big jump in size and definition. By the end of the school year Solotaroff’s father doesn’t even recognize his own son.

Paul spends his summer in NYC and a chance meeting in a downtown gym gets him a gig dancing at parties for Angel, a big dude with a big ‘tude. Angel spends his days lifting and his nights partying and Paul is swiftly carried away, lured in by the money, the clothes and the copious amounts of drugs— both the increasingly strong steroids as well as the cocaine, quaaludes and everything in between.

It’s an interesting story, and well told by Solotaroff. He’s a gifted writer and it definitely helps keep the story engaging as the craziness ensues. The characters are well-observed and Solotaroff is adept at describing his own failures without seeming self-indulgent or overly maudlin. The last chapters are the best, as Paul struggles to get his life back and overcome his feelings of inadequacy as his body shrinks and begins to repair itself after so much abuse. Luckily Solotaroff has a quick mind and he has inherited his father’s well-respected writing and editing skills. Over time, he seems to have developed a more positive self-image that allows him to flex his intellectual muscle to great success as a writer/editor for Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone and other publications. It’s a great story and worth a read.

To read more of Mrs. Smith’s reviews, check out her blog, Mrs. Smith Reads.

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