- By Chris McCormick
- 368 pp.
- Reviewed by Russell J. MacMullan Jr.
- January 23, 2021
The Armenian genocide serves as a philosophical backdrop for this story of survival, identity, and wrestling.
“When a guy loses sight of the line between real life and the role he’s playing — we call that living the gimmick. Most dangerous thing in the world, my friend, to become a mark for yourself.”
So warns Terry “Angel Hair” Krill, a California pro wrestler, manager, and one of four characters whose perspectives are shared in alternating flashbacks in Chris McCormick’s second novel, The Gimmicks.
In pro wrestling, a gimmick is a wrestler’s persona, his unique traits that create a relationship between the performer and fans (or marks). Kayfabe is “the illusion of pro wrestling’s reality.” While both kayfabe and gimmicks are part of the vernacular in the sport and its mythology, McCormick uses their substantial metaphoric power to create an intriguing narrative that extends from Soviet Armenia in 1971 to California in 1989.
In addition to Krill, three Armenian characters — Avo, Ruben, and Mina — provide an arc that leads us through time, space, and national trauma. Indeed, the context for all four narratives is the intergenerational inheritance of the genocide — “the shattering” — of 1.5 million Armenians near the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
Armenians, descendants of an ancient civilization in eastern Anatolia, have long lived in a conflicted relationship with a Turkish Muslim majority. Turkish nationalists — allied with Germany — and the dissolution of the Ottomans spawned the persecution of the historically restless Armenians through the confiscation of assets, relocation, concentration camps, separation of families, rape, and murder.
Trauma provides the catalyst that drives McCormick’s main characters, who often “confuse a national tragedy for a personal one.”
Angel Hair Krill is the narrator of his story. Despite the gimmicks of his wrestling profession and its theater, Krill knows that the wrestler is “nobody’s fool, that his life and pain were real.” Yet, it is Krill’s commitment to the reality of his life’s illusion that leads him to discover Avo in a California bar, raise him to the heights of the profession, and then abandon him, only to rediscover, later, the worth of his protégé.
Even as Krill resurrects his own career through Avo, he finds he has the capacity, like the Turks of old, to erase the significance of his Armenian apprentice. And while there is apparent solidarity and brotherhood between them at one level, illusion and manipulation lead to betrayal. Krill’s relationship with Avo mirrors wrestling as an “elaborate fiction staged as honest competition.”
Avo, orphaned at 15, lost both parents in a factory fire. Moving to a nearby town in Armenia, he is taken in by relatives. His “cousin of cousins,” Ruben, “was barely the size of a girl. And he looked bitter about it — the scowl he wore beneath the large frame of his glasses gave him the look of an old man cursed to live in a child’s body.”
By contrast, Avo was “bigger than every man in the train station.” Foils for each other, the cousins soon see themselves as brothers in the face of loss, loneliness, and familial conflict. Ruben obsesses over his insecurities and, by extension, the Armenian genocide, the denial by the Turks of its existence, and the subsequent international cover-up.
Choosing between his love of a girl, Mina, and his loyalty to Ruben, Avo heads to California, called, as an Armenian man, to “shunt aside his heart for what he had been taught was the greater good.” At Ruben’s behest, he travels to the U.S. to join the Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia. Then, recognizing the essential evil of terrorism, he escapes to become a successful pro wrestler with a gimmick, “the Brow Beater.”
Unlike Avo and Ruben, Mina wants nothing of her culture’s tragic history; a gifted backgammon player, she wants to move on. In one way, “Backgammon is the perfect sport for her because it combines both skill and circumstance and in this way it’s the sport that most resembles life.”
Ruben stews that “[t]he dice had rolled her way more than not. The mosquitos never bit her…” In this mixture of skill and context, Mina ends up qualifying for the world backgammon tournament in Paris, representing Soviet Armenia. Unlike Ruben, “Mina consistently drew good things to herself.”
Also a backgammon player, and one who always loses to Mina, Ruben wants to go to the Paris championship specifically for his recruitment in the European diaspora of “wider-minded” Armenians. Ruben opines about his role, “We are Armenian first, and always have been.”
With a blood draw on loyalty and brotherhood, and smarting from Mina’s success, Ruben employs a gimmick as a kind of Armenian avenger that results in tragic consequences. However, because he confuses his role with reality, he betrays those closest to him and becomes a caricature in his own drama. Ruben is tragically “living the gimmick.”
In the end, author Chris McCormick has offered us a well-written novel — a nuanced, lyrical tale of relationships and personal tragedy set against the metaphorical tricks of wrestling. The Gimmicks impressively characterizes the enduring nature of Armenian contradictions in which “everything you’ve heard is true, everything you’ve heard is false.”
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]
Russell MacMullan is a former English teacher and head of several independent schools. He has written extensively to school communities on educational issues.