Sitting demurely across from World Wrestling Entertainment title-holder Mick Foley, statistics swam around inside my mind. Six concussions, two broken noses, six broken ribs, more than 300 stitches — all injuries incurred during his wrestling career. Prepared at any moment to be body-slammed or head-butted, I sat across the table from the burly wrestler and went questioning — in search of the man behind the names Cactus Jack, Mankind and Dude Love.
Expecting buttons to pop off Foley's suit and a raging, muscled madman to appear, I was surprised when he revealed a less-popularized persona: Mick Foley the Author. After previous books, including a best-selling two-volume autobiography, he's recently published his first novel, Tietam Brown.
The book, though titled as such, is told from the son's, Andy Brown's, perspective and details the hard-knocks (literally) and tough-love of life begun in the foster care system. This uncensored look at a life of battles has earned Foley praise and criticism.
"The sensitive coming-of-age story that also includes graphic violence and deviant sexuality is a hard sell," he admits.
Yet the book, inspired by James Coburn's performance in Affliction, is "an uplifting story," Foley says. The reader follows Andy's new life with his estranged father, Tietam, interspersed with terrifyingly honest vignettes of tragedy and love.
"After acknowledging that people may have a point, I still think that the book is about hope in the face of hopelessness," Foley insists.
He doesn't shirk from the inclusion of violence in the book.
"I'm drawn to the rage that lurks within everyone," he says. "I think that every episode of Andy's rage is justified ... but that he ultimately pays a steep price for it. So it's not as if I'm glorifying the violence."
There's sex, too, characterized from a teenage boy's perspective as he tiptoes into adolescent behavior influenced by a father who brings home a different woman every night, records his sexual escapades and does naked squats in between rounds with his current fling. Thus Andy's commentary is honest, embarrassed, comedic and full of sexual euphemisms that even Foley laughingly calls "sophomoric."
It's Foley's writing that overcomes the sex and violence handicap. Pragmatic, simple and frank, Andy's narration of his 17 years is touchingly credible.
There's nothing contrived about the way that Tietam tries to re-enter Andy's life and become a "good" father and man. This comedic, flirting characterization is so skillful that it's easy to be charmed. But Foley brings the reader back to reality and a dark conclusion that threatens to hurt the book's success.
"It's not lighthearted at all," he acknowledges.
It is about redemption lost and salvation missed. It's not depressing, just tragic.
"I think that the tragedy is that (Tietam) doesn't just fail but gives up completely," Foley says.
The simple mastery of Foley's diction brings together the touching and the tearful, a distinction he draws between "good writing and good storytelling." It's the good storytelling that enraptures readers and pulls them into the book, like an opponent becoming tangled in one of his wrestling holds. Characters like Coach Hanrahan — a steroid-pushing, racist football freak — provide comedy and reality, to such a degree that fans tell Foley, "I know that guy!"
I left the interview surprised. Underneath Foley's endearing mop-head of hair, he's missing a famous two-thirds of his right ear. Honest, thought-provoking sentences spill fluidly from a mouth missing more than a few teeth. The tough-guy wrestler is really a hardcore writer.
"It's when I'm driving that I think of things," Foley says. "It's like a big wrestling match — I let it build and build."
And what comes forth in Tietam Brown isn't too far removed from the WWE. It's a bit dark, with entertainment, sex and violence.
Perhaps Foley, too, is like his book. They're whatever one takes them to be.
"No one's called it boring," he says, "and people are acknowledging that it makes them think." ©