When I asked Alex Dawson, owner of the Main Street bookshop The Raconteur, about the superficial incongruity of Saturday’s unusual event, he was no longer wearing the sleeveless cowboy shirt of the night before. Instead, he wore a black crewneck emblazoned with blocky, blood-red letters that read “The Raconteur Motorcycle Club.” A fiery skull replaced the “o” in “Raconteur” and tongues of flame flanked the words “Metuchen, NJ.” He massaged his rotary cuff through the cotton of his club T and offered a circuitous explanation. “I like the idea of a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner grappling shirtless in the dirt with Rip Torn,” said Dawson, referring to a particular YouTube clip featuring Norman Mailer, “it’s unexpected.” In the same sort of macho, paradoxical spirit, Dawson not only sells half priced books and hosts more sophisticated cultural fare (2008 National Book Award winning poet Mark Doty will be there later this week), he also holds a George Bernard Shaw beard growing contest called The Un-Shavian (get it?), leads a series of rides for bibliophilic bikers, and sponsors an arm-wrestling competition named for the titular fisherman in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.
Inspired by the grueling twenty-four hour match in Casablanca between the marlin trolling Santiago and “the great Negro from Cienfuegos, who was the strongest man on the docks," The 1st Annual Santiago Armsport Tourney kicked off Saturday night with a theatrical reading from OMS by stage heavy/arm-wrestling adjudicator Jeff Maschi (who recently played Hemingway in an in-store production of Papa, and is set to play Wolverine, yes Wolverine, in an upcoming one man show at The Rac).
“They had gone one day and one night with their elbows on a chalk line and their forearms straight up and their hands gripped tight.” Sitting at the square bark brown “hand game” table, lit overhead by a single pale light, Jeff read about how the shadows jumped on the blue walls, and the fingernails bled on the black fists, and how the men changed referees every four hours so that the officials could sleep.
Then, against a backdrop of Beny Moré and a handful of over blown pop hits by eighties icons Kenny Loggins (Meet Me Half Way) and Eddie Money (I Will Be Strong), Hemingway fans and Stallone stalwarts settled themselves into thirty folding chairs for a succession of blustery bouts between contenders like Roland (named for Charlemagne’s towering knight), a mountainous mash-up of George “the Animal” Steele and Over the Top’s burly “Bull” Hurley; James “Feel the Bern” Dudley, a husky dark horse; and long haul trucker, er, local bookseller, Alex Dawson. Yes, just an ordinary night at The Raconteur.
Bern baby Bern!
There were others. Leon, a cock diesel classicist who chops his own wood and reads Latin shirtless, showed excellent form against the sinewy, tentacled Tom, a recent Princeton grad/senior class prez with arms twice as long as everyone else's. (It was a match that forced Eva, sister of one, flame of the other, to make a difficult cheering choice: Beau or Bro?)
Fifty something jazz composer John joined the fray mid-way, wearing a sleeveless shirt that revealed two biceps, thin as butter blades, white as bar naps, ball-pointed with makeshift tatts that respectively read “Born to Torque,” and “Bud Don’t Budge,” the latter a nod to a knotty modal composition (of the same name) now available on his newly minted five CD album. John swiveled his hips, touched his toes, cracked his knuckles, and went up against the wiry lever of a college kid named Jess. The match was over in seconds, with John, who’d spent the day googling techniques, bemoaning “My research has failed me!”
Some people fight for money, some fight for glory, some fight for the love of their alienated son, but Dawson, who took on all comers, fought to avoid handing out the twenty-five dollar gift certs he’d promised the victors (“should they emerge”). Turns out, he’d been a dive bar champ during his days as a gutbucket bartender/bouncer and, though he hadn’t “torqued” in six years, his wrenches served him well. He wrestled eight without a break (including a Roland rematch), and won every one.
The tournament was followed by a free screening of the 1952 Oscar nominated Spencer Tracy film.
Note: The Raconteur posts all its events on Youtube. Look for a video tape of the tournament online in the next week or so.