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Bob Paris wants you to feel his pain. Or maybe just his bulging biceps; he never seems quite sure which. If his memoir reveals anything, it's that a bodybuilder's emotions are inextricably linked to the taut, chiseled body that he suffers to create: A dysfunctional family translates itself into a bench press, loneliness is reworked as a set of leg curls. Paris, a winner of the Mr. America and Mr. Universe contests in the mid-80s, earnestly catalogues his litany of sorrows to point out that beneath his rock-hard exterior lies a human being with the same concerns as those of your average girlie-man. But Gorilla Suit fails to give either him or his sport the kind of poetry or pathos he tries so hard to convey.
Paris' story is a rags-to-riches tale, which he rarely provides with any color beyond simple caricatures and clichés. Growing up in the Bible Belt, the dope-smoking Teenage Loser falls in love with bodybuilding, slowly rises up the Ladder of Fame until he moves to the sport's Mecca, Los Angeles, becomes a world champion, then disowns the muscle world altogether in disgust and frustration. Through that time, he struggles with his Abusive Father, Opportunistic Svengalis, coming out as a Gay Man and the prevalence of steroids in the sport. Paris loves bodybuilding so much that he hates it; he's full of righteous rage about how it could be a major, Olympic-class sport if only it cleaned up, got organized and taught the media that it's more than a circus sideshow of "freaky" bodies.
Paris' honesty and even-handedness are admirable, but that doesn't mean his tale is particularly fascinating. Having already covered the muscleman market in three fitness books and confessed his struggles as a gay man in Straight From the Heart (co-written with his lover, Rod Jackson), Paris intends Gorilla Suit for the general interest market, but it lacks the necessary depth. Its pages of invective aimed at guru Joe Weider -- who almost single-handedly created professional bodybuilding while tacitly allowing its corruption -- might cause a stir amongst Muscle and Fitness subscribers, but most will see him as merely a Crusty-but-Benign Entrepreneur. As for the pathos, it rarely gets more sophisticated than Paris' confession to a friend: "Even when I wear real clothes, I still bulge out of 'em like I'm Frankenstein's monster trying to disguise himself in a tuxedo."
By the book's end, the collision of past and present has all the impact of a 5-pound free-weight landing on a gym floor mat; we've learned a little about bodybuilding and a bit more about Paris himself, but if there's any drama or mystery in an incline dumbbell press, he doesn't expose it. For all those muscles, he's a nice, well-meaning guy, never one who'd kick sand in the face of some 98-pound weakling. So instead he just strolls along the beach by himself, Hallmark-card poetic, kicking sand around at nothing in particular. -- Salon