REVIEW | The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick
Violence and brotherhood are at the heart of war and professional wrestling. While the former is a murderous reality and the latter is combat performance, the risks and physical toll of both competitions are synonymous with narratives of toughness, masculinity, and often luck and fate. If war is the brutal truth, then professional wrestling is its local allegory. The Gimmicks by Chris McCormick is an ambitious international drama that explores the occupation of Armenia in the 1970s and the resulting network of Armenian ex-pats seeking vengeance against genocide deniers in Europe and the United States through the lens of war and professional wrestling. Genocide denial and professional wrestling are parallel narratives in the novel due to their united battle against falseness. Throughout the novel, members of the international Armenian network rebel against the fictional narratives of genocide and are willing to take violent action to deny falsehoods. Similarly, professional wrestling struggles with fictional theatrics that overshadow the violent and social realities of the profession. Although the scale and stakes of war and professional wrestling differ, McCormick wonderfully juxtaposes the two narratives and their unique struggle with the falsehood of their existence.
The novel focuses on three primary characters – Mina, Ruben, and Avo – as they navigate their childhood and adolescent years in Armenia in the 1970s. Mina and Ruben’s exceptional training and skills in backgammon qualifies them for an international tournament in Paris. A chain-reaction of events leading to the international competition displaces their once innocent upbringing in occupied Armenia and displaces them across the globe. Like backgammon, skill and luck play a pivotal role in the directions of their lives. Mina is friends with both Ruben and Avo which naturally generates multiple misunderstandings and jealousies between the brothers. Shifting loyalties and unbalanced knowledge between the three main characters drives the plot while charting divergent paths for each of them.
The ambition of the novel is rooted in the breadth of its spatial and temporal scale. The story simultaneously unfolds in Armenia in the 1970s, and the United States in the 1980s. The back and forth between time periods allows the reader to piece the narrative together like a mystery as it slowly unveils coinciding elements about the past and present. Geographically, the setting spans the globe from the United States, Armenia, and several other European countries. To McCormick’s credit, geography and time are not distractions to the plot, but instead feel essential to enriching the character’s circumstances, particularly the brotherhood of Ruben and Avo.
The relationship and wavering loyalty between the two brothers are the foundations of the novel. A defiant and violent act catalyzed by Ruben and executed by Avo in their childhood propels Ruben’s membership in an international Armenian network invoking kidnappings of genocide deniers and retributive attacks on those opposed to the nation’s sovereignty. The group utilizes violence as a means of protest and dignity. Avo once again places faith in his brother and joins the cause in California before eventually dismissing Armenian efforts in favor of participating in professional wrestling in the United States. The asynchronous relationship between the brothers tests each of their loyalties, truthfulness, love, and altruism. McCormick extends the metaphor of brotherhood as it pertains to the Armenian cause to professional wrestling as he eloquently describes the in-ring performance as a co-dependence between two men:
“... the wrestling ring was the only place where two men could be present in that way together, where two men used their presence to take real care of each other. Real care. Out there we had each other’s literal breathing lives in our hands, and if we watched a wrestling match closely enough, we could spot a devoted focus in every slam, a tenderness in ever hold. It’s like one of those modern paintings, I told him. From a distance you see violence. Up close you find love.”
The dramatic prose describing wrestling is balanced by character quirks, like Avo’s insistent use of the word “bro” through his broken English, refusal to drive, and his fractured relationship with wrestling manager Terry Krill. The comical brotherhood Avo experiences in America reinforces the relationship between Ruben and Avo in Armenia while insinuating the absence of true companionship in the United States. While Ruben fights violently for their home country, Avo suffers bruises in the ring in search of his own personal freedom. The crux of the narrative is the dichotomy of the two brothers experiencing the reality of their efforts amidst the perceptions of fakeness in each of their causes.
Professional wrestling plays a literal and metaphorical role in the novel. In California, Avo becomes a professional wrestler, which takes him across the country as he perfects his craft and gimmick, or wrestling persona. Krill insists that professional wrestling is the true American pastime and the best way to see the real America. Furthermore, Krill asks: “What was the American Dream if not the ability to trade gimmick after gimmick until you got one over?” McCormick writes about wrestling comprehensively and carefully. His writing exhibits sensitivity to the craft and its various traditions. He wonderfully mirrors the violence of professional wrestling with violence in Armenia, allowing the reader to immerse themselves in each of the respective worlds without requiring any previous knowledge of either.
This book should firstly be read by anyone interested in the history of Armenia or is passionate about professional wrestling as both a sport and craft. Beyond these specific subjects, the novel is an incredibly entertaining international drama that explores challenging questions about brotherhood, the immigrant experience in the United States, the American Dream, the existence of God in the face of atrocities, and appropriate responses to mass violence. It’s a lesson in philosophy through the paths of the three characters and the respective decisions they make about their lives and country.
McCormick has a tremendous ability to first create an elaborate world and then embed the reader in its complexities. The ambitious scale of the novel immerses the reader in foreign worlds and crafts, like backgammon and professional wrestling, through the larger lens of foreign occupation and violence in Armenia. McCormick demonstrates his immense power as a writer through simple and direct prose that convey great depth and detail. He places characters in complicated moral predicaments that force the reader to wonder about their own sense of morality and justice. In the struggle of the perceived fakeness of both the Armenian genocide and professional wrestling, McCormick’s debut novel is a reality check on the persistence of violence around the globe and in the ring.
Pardeep Toor's writing focuses on the complexities of being a first-generation South Asian in North America. He won the 2019 Frank Waters Fiction Award and the 2020 Kevin McIlvoy Creative Writing Endowed Fellowship at New Mexico State University. His fiction has appeared in the Midwest Review.