Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

August 2, 2010

Paul Solotaroff's Big Story

The writer couldn't write anymore until he told his own improbable story, about the transformation of a gawky teen into a muscleman in New York's wild '70s.

Max Lakin

Within its first manic pages, Paul Solotaroff's The Body Shop: Parties, Pills, and Pumping Iron—Or, My Life in the Age of Muscle draws the connection between the dearth of athletically-blessed Hebrews and the author's own self-aware muscular shortcoming. Just past the title page, in fact, the reader finds Solotaroff, swimming in artificial testosterone, reporting to a job at a Long Island bar mitzvah in immodest costume as a bulging, glistening Moses. The rabbi, perhaps knowingly, suggests he should have come as Samson.

Paul Solotaroff
"If I hadn't encountered steroids, I knew I wouldn't have the moral strength to become a journalist, to tell other people's stories."

Paul Solotaroff

It is a fitting opening gambit to Solotaroff's memoir about challenging his genetic lot. Those Biblical allusions are just about where the well of Semitic physical glory goes dusty and where the modern Jew's struggle with self-image runneth over. Also the Moses scene introduces Solotaroff at perhaps his lowest—the kind of guy who barters with a gaggle of pre-pubescents in a synagogue bathroom, trading a spliff for a buffet sampler of corned-beef-on-rye and a few latkes.

But Solotaroff, the "seriously inward" son of erudite, literary parents, is also the kind of guy who can distill the social relevance of Ralph Ellison's nameless narrator in Invisible Man, and seems so replete with self-loathing for his own lank that he would swap much if not all of his well-read nature for a few pounds of muscle. And that kind of crippling self-consciousness, bundled with a supplier, leads to a destructive outcome.

Solotaroff tragicomically recounts his "incipient lust for sinew"; of hurtling through stacks of Deca before it was a punchline, before it was even moderately fashionable; of mainlining polysyllabic synthetics in the stalls of uptown Manhattan Y bathrooms; tempting the reaches of his body; never being satisfied.

Nominally, The Body Shop concerns the swirl of Solotaroff's steroidal years and the several-year sortie during which, among other things, he attends clandestine Uptown orgies, dances for paying suburban women, and finds himself awake in strange beds, sad and in too-tight glam rock T-shirts. It is also, as Solotaroff tells Gelf in the following interview—which has been edited for length and clarity—a dive into the deep end of how you get to that point at all: strained relationships with his parents, who were divorced before he hit double digits; being young and alive in New York City in the 1970s, that place of "SROs and plein air heroin marts," and, in the grand tradition of any Jew over the age of seven, the lifetime task of sloughing off the weight of a saddled history.

Gelf Magazine: Would you say you were addicted to the steroids themselves, or to their promise?

Paul Solotaroff: I'm not sure there was a difference. It took me a couple years, despite the fact that I was clearly a victim of the law of diminishing returns and was developing symptoms every day. I had tried to quit after my first injection. It was at first a little like trying to quit smoking: I would get down to a single compound, then I'd get stressed about something, and was back to shooting some multiple of that. A lot of it had to do with the idea that I was disappearing before my very eyes.

Gelf Magazine: What were the catalysts for your foray into this culture?

Paul Solotaroff: The same kind of pedestrian reasons that most guys I ran into in the gym had. We grew up, for the most part, as kids on the margins: emotionally abandoned, geographically marooned. There was this global sense of uselessness, of disconnectedness. With me it was a combination of really being battered by my parents' divorce, and growing up asthmatic and skinny. The notion of my ongoing frailty was something I was trying to remedy one way or another, but my metabolism wasn't slow-grow; it was no grow. I could have lifted every day for three hours and eaten like a garbage disposable and I knew it wouldn't have made a difference. I needed to rewrite my DNA.

Gelf Magazine: Most of the book takes place in the summer of 1976, while you're on break from Stony Brook. Most kids find it tough holding down a three-month internship. How fast did that time in your life feel? Or was it the complete opposite?

Paul Solotaroff: It did feel fast. If you're doing stacks of steroids and you're a young guy of a certain age, it's 100% probable that steroids are not your only problem.
What was so bittersweet about the '70s, what made them so irresistibly piquant, was how innocent, how so incredibly naive the entire culture was about just about everything. Of all the whoring I did that summer, for profit and otherwise, I think I ran into maybe two women who asked me if I had a condom, and the flip side was true, too.

Gelf Magazine: There is a scene where you get roped into becoming male entertainment at a bachelorette party in Long Beach, Long Island. The party was full of Jewish women for whom you dance the Hora and whom you goad with stories about stripping your way through law school to repay your selfless mother (truly the apogee of middle-aged Jewish female fantasy), and who then tip you in chocolate Hanukkah gelt. It reads like a lurid bat mitzvah. Did you fully appreciate the comedy there at the time, or were you too busy trying to hold on to your very soul?

Paul Solotaroff: I did. The entire book is meant to be funny, pitch-black. There is I think as much humor as I could muster, because the events I describe could obviously have gotten very dreary very quickly.
It took me a few years to establish the tone of the book, two of those years the worst of my life. I could not for the life of me write an interesting sentence. [In the book,] I'm attempting to capitalize, not just on my stupidity, but on the way we all kind of seemed to lurch around. Sex seemed new to us. It was the summer that disco hit—that first huge tsunami. It seemed like anyone under the age of 30, and a good chunk over 30, were flocking to these new epic discos, checking their inhibitions in the cab as they got out. We as a city suddenly found ourselves in the candy store, and nobody wanted to get out.

Gelf Magazine: What was it like, mentally, to be pushing all those drugs? You write that your emotions were noticeably boggled, though you felt that you were able to keep them relatively in check. You also note that others disagreed with that assessment.

Paul Solotaroff: I was pretty close to being a red-eye monster. I was a fairly sleepy kid, until I started juicing. Let's just say a modest dose really sharpened my focus, and an immodest dose turned me into a libidinal monster. I remember laughing at stuff, like The Tonight Show monologue, that barely tickled me before, and crying at things I had never found sad, like the PSA of the Native American tearing at the side of the road.

Gelf Magazine: Insofar as actually committing this all to print: when did you realize you were willing—or were able—to expose yourself so fully?

Paul Solotaroff: That came about in drips and drabs. I got into a therapy group in the late '80s, early '90s, that enabled me to start processing this kind of stuff. I'd been in therapy forever, but it wasn't until I became part of this group that some of the shame fell away—the bathos, or maybe even pathos, I'm not sure. I was so ashamed of myself before, during, and after. That I was so forlorn, kind of an invisible kid, all of this kind of assaulting, self-accusation going on—I finally began to be able to wind that down.
I've been conjuring this story, these memories, for a while. What's interesting is, if I hadn't encountered steroids, I knew I wouldn't have the moral strength to become a journalist, to tell other people's stories. In one way or another I've been writing this story my whole life, but around 2002 or 2003, I realized I couldn't write anything until I wrote this story explicitly, as indecent and defamatory a vehicle that it is. I don't really have the chops to write long-form fiction, and trust me, I tried it. And though those drugs didn't destroy my memory, I still found it very, very hard to commit to the word "I" and really inhabit it for 350 pages.

Gelf Magazine: You found the process more difficult than writing fiction?

Paul Solotaroff: Oh, this is the last memoir you'll read from me. I'm fully cured.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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