The Hitman: A wound turned to light
The isles in Chapters bookstore are clogged. A middle-aged man is standing in front of a short stage set up for the occasion. Next to the man, a woman in her late fifties is clutching a copy of what is called simply the book on this day. Three kids, two boys and a girl, storm past the stage. A young woman in her twenties walks by with two of copies of the book folded in the crook of her arm. The ageless appeal that wrestling has, or at least once had, is evident.
Sporting a blue blazer and dark jeans, Bret “The Hitman” Hart enters the room to 80s rock and is greeted by loud cheers as he slowly seats himself at a table on the stage. The book signing has seen Hart travel the country – Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Barrie, London, Windsor and Ottawa – and he doesn’t look in shape to make it home to Calgary.
He strains to sign autographs, writing with a right hand that moves lethargically. The effects of the stroke he suffered a few years back are evident. He looks a little lost, like a dyslexic third grader trying to read fine print.
The line has continued to grow for over two hours but one could count on two hands how many times Hart has flexed a smile. Fatigue is written in the bags under his eyes that seem to reveal nothing and everything at once.
Hitman: My real life in the cartoon world of wrestling opens at his father Stu’s funeral on the day, writes Hart, that wrestling died. It concludes with a bike accident and stroke that leaves the former WWF heavyweight champion partially paralyzed and unable, at times, to smile while signing autographs.
A broken marriage, injuries and illnesses, and the death of countless friends and family members in and out of the ring meet Georges Braque’s dictum that “art is a wound turned to life” in Hart’s painstaking 553-page autobiography. “If I’d had to write a will, it would have been a few lines,” Hart writes in Hitman, “but if I had to write a suicide note, it would have been a thousand pages long.”
The book offers an insight into the unseen side of WWF wrestlers’ lives. Unbeknownst to the millions of kids watching their heroes roll around in the ring every week, many WWF wrestlers in the 90s, like today’s Hollywood starlets, were angels with dirty faces.
“One by one I watched damn near everybody come out of Zahorian’s room with grocery bags full of drugs, even Vince,” Hart writes. “It often happened that wrestlers bought so many drugs that they couldn’t carry them in their suitcases and had to ship them home.”
Steroids, Placidyl, Valium, Percocets, Halcions and Deca-Durabolis permeate the pages of Hitman. Reading about Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, and the 1-2-3 Kid’s upper-and-downer addictions or Jim “The Anvil” and Davey Boy Smith smoking crack is surreal.
With a little help from Ann Collins and Marcy Engelstein, who “developed an uncanny ability to accurately analyze my career in a way that nobody else could,” Hitman flows with turn-the-page intensity that reads as if he spent the past 23 years writing rather than wrestling.
Jokes permeate Hart’s tale. In Hitman, a welcome-to-my-life feel is at play and built brick by brick, like a Shakespearean classic, through tragedy and comedy.
“My father was a shooter, or submission wrestler, and he loved to stretch anyone who dared show up at his door,” Hart writes. “I remember him stretching Father Roberts, the Catholic priest who baptized all the Hart kids…But Stu was non-denominational; he stretched a rabbi once too. ”
The timeline of Hitman stretches Hart’s early career at Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, where the crew would scrap in front of “the usual crowd of about one hundred fans, which consisted mostly of mentally challenged kids, a handful of diehards, and a few drunks,” to his days wrestling in Puerto Rico, Japan and Germany, before being signed by the WWF.
Hart recounts his relationship with the WWF without pulling any punches. From divorce, drugs and death to threesomes with Japanese girls, WWF titles and lifelong friendships, Hart recounts his years in the WWF with the honest accuracy of a man who trapped his thoughts on a tape recorder.
“When you talk into the tapes like I did you’re gonna get that right there kind of feel,” Hart says after the autograph session finishes. “What was important to me writing this book was that I be really honest. I felt I had to be honest about different people and some of the problems that we all had with wrestling.”
Hart seems to have physically transformed. He smiles the entire interview and his brown eyes light up the small room. He doesn’t slouch or strain to speak; he sits upright and preaches about the UFC and wrestling and his writing and the book with the enthusiasm of a zealous Christian trying to cash in on a conversion.
His flight leaves in an hour and the airport is across the city. Time is tight. But that doesn’t stop Hart from talking. Even the bystanders in the room hang on his every word, as if he were in the middle of a WWF ring with a microphone in his hand. Unlike his demeanor in front of hundreds of people, one on one he reveals bits of The Hitman.
Sitting across from Hart one can’t help but remember when the man – the legend – used to storm out of the WWF curtains and give his sunglasses to the luckiest kid in the building. The kid would smile ear to ear and Hart would enter the ring, proudly pronouncing that: “I’m the best there is, the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be!”