Jon-Jon Goulian was born in 1968 and grew up in La Jolla, California. After attending Columbia College and NYU Law School, he worked as a law clerk for a federal judge in North Carolina, and then as an assistant to Robert Silvers of The New York Review of Books. He now lives, by himself, in South Wardsboro, Vermont, where he spends most of his time gardening. The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt is his first book.
What is the name of the book?
Muscle, by Samuel Fussell. It’s a memoir about weightlifting, steroid use, and how to break your parents’ hearts by not going to graduate school at Yale, as you were expected to, but instead becoming a gym rat and professional bodybuilder. To make the story even juicier, the author, wearing nothing but a pair of bikini underwear in a picture on the back of the book, is the son of the notoriously curmudgeonly Paul Fussell (author of The Great War and Modern Memory, and BAD: or, The Dumbing of America).
How old were you when you read it?
22. (I’ll be 43 in August)
What character did you most identify with?
The obsessively insecure narrator — Sam.
What was your favorite part?
Two favorite parts: a) We’re in Sam’s apartment in Queens, a dark and musty basement apartment, as I remember it. Sam has quit his job in publishing, and, despite having a BA from Oxford, and having been accepted to graduate school in American Studies at Yale, has chosen instead to devote his life to professional bodybuilding. He’s about to move to Los Angeles so that he can work out in Gold’s Gym in Venice, the mecca, the world over, for serious bodybuilders. His mom, who lives in Princeton, has come to visit him to try to dissuade him, as she sees it, from ruining his life. He’s completely unmoved. In fact, he’s offended. As she tries to explain to him that a career in bodybuilding is silly, unrealistic, stupid, and basically no career at all, Sam, wearing a weight-lifting belt, responds with inspirational slogans he’s gleaned from the numerous bodybuilding magazines he’s been reading obsessively for months. His mom, suspecting (and who can blame her!) that her son has gone crazy, begins to cry. Sam’s response to this? Like a maniac, he just continues spouting inspirational slogans.
b) We’re in a gym somewhere in California. Sam is squatting five or six hundred pounds. A friend, in an effort to motivate him to do as many reps as possible, and with Sam’s pre-arranged consent, punches him in the face. This is just the prod that Sam needed, and he finishes that final rep.
5) Did you read it more than once? Yes. I read it five times in quick succession, all at the age of 22/23, and then never again.
Why/How did it affect you?
As I explain in my book [The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt], “Muscle was intended to be a cautionary tale. The lesson was that Fussell had lost his mind, and that the armor he had built for himself was an illusion. But that was not the lesson I chose to take from it. The lesson I chose to take, still in evidence in the margins of my copy of the book, where I scribbled exclamation points next to his workout routine and diet, was that I, too, like Samuel Fussell, could build myself a suit of armor. Not so much [as in Fussell's case] to protect myself against the perils of New York, the fears of which I had largely overcome by the gradual process, over five years of exposure, of desensitization, but to distract people from looking at my balding head. On a bodybuilder, the head is completely irrelevant. Because the head, like the hands and feet and fingers and elbows, you cannot build. Everything else you can build. So it is below the head of a bodybuilder that one’s gaze is naturally drawn. Those of you who did not begin to go bald in your early twenties, as I did, cannot appreciate how crucial it was for me, to stave off a chronic depression that kept me in bed . . . and threatened to kill me, to at least give myself the illusion that everyone around me was not constantly staring at my head.”
So, with Samuel Fussell’s Muscle as my guide and inspiration (especially the Before and After pictures of him on the back of the book), for the next eight years I spent up to four hours a day in the gym, seven days a week, and ate six meals (and up to 250 grams of protein) a day. I became as big and muscular as I could possibly be without doing steroids. That’s where I drew the line. Steroids I refused to do. I wanted to be bigger, I still felt relatively small and pathetic, but I hate needles, and I didn’t have the balls to shrink my testicles.
Did you pass it on to anyone?
Oh, yes! It was my standard gift (to my skinny male friends) for most of the 1990s.
If you could change places with a character of fiction for one day, who would it be?
Orlando. Any old day in his (or her) very long life would do just fine.
What are you reading now?
Less than Zero. For the fourth time. I first read it almost 25 years ago, in the spring of 1986. I was a senior at La Jolla High School. My English teacher, Mr. Carey, handed Less than Zero to me and said, “You’ve complained to me that every novel I assign you is boring. That the characters, the plots, the prose, are too remote from your personal experience. You want a book that moves you? You want a book that speaks to your personal experience? Here! Less than Zero! You, and all your friends, are in it!” He was right. It was the first novel that moved me. Even more than that, it was the first novel — the first book of any kind — that made me want to be a writer. I read it again, for the first time in 25 years, not long ago, and it still made me want to be a writer. It also made me want to interview Bret Easton Ellis! So I asked Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review, if I could do it, and Lorin was all for it. Bret was too. I’ve now met with Bret a number of times, and the interview, I hope, if I finish it in time, will come out in The Paris Review this fall.
Purchase Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder from Amazon