Jon Hotten Yellow Jersey Press, 262pp, £10.99
In front of me is a photograph of an Austrian bodybuilder, Andreas Munzer. It was taken in 1996, just 12 days before he died from ill-effects caused by the steroids and diuretics he had abused in a futile effort to follow in the footsteps of his compatriot Arnold Schwarzenegger, seven times winner of the Mr Olympia event. It's a repulsive but mesmerising sight. Clive James once wrote that Arnie's physique resembled a condom stuffed with walnuts. There are no walnuts here (unless you count the relatively tiny bulge that nestles between this monster's swollen thighs). In the case of 31-year-old Munzer, the prophylactic seems to have been packed with something far bigger: old cobblestones, perhaps, or crusty brown loaves, or even, in the case of his shoulders, a couple of live armadillos.
Munzer's muscles are so gross and so defined - "ripped", to use the correct parlance - that it is almost as if they are attached to the outside of his body. How, you wonder, can something be so curvaceous and yet so utterly hard? First, you take in his abs and his pecs and his non-existent neck (Munzer's apple-like head perches on his shoulders, which gives him an oddly childlike appearance, as if he had been drawn in crayon). Then you wonder at the silvery light and shade cast by his wildly bowed limbs. He resembles an abstract painting or sculpture, the boy David as imagined by Georges Braque or Marcel Duchamp. It is last of all that your attention wanders to his eyes. How dead they are, how hopeless. At this point, you know how some men must feel when they visit strip clubs, or use pornography. You have a sudden urge to throw him a dressing gown.
Munzer is the tragic ghost that haunts Muscle, Jon Hotten's extended encounter with the "sport" of body-building. At the time of his death, Munzer was taking such vast quantities of steroids that his liver had all but dissolved; his other organs were fatally dehydrated (for the pro, water is the enemy - the best poses can be achieved only if the body is Sahara-dry); his blood vessel walls had ruptured. And yet he died in vain. Body-building's stars, Hotten informs us, grow freakier by the year, aided and abetted by a ruling body whose drug-testing practices are at best haphazard. Does the author object to this? Not nearly enough, in my view. "I saw unrecognised honour in what he achieved," Hotten writes of his plucky Austrian. "He was more than just a dead guy who'd taken too many drugs. He was not the end of body-building as a sport. He was a symbol of what it sometimes took to succeed."
Oh, please. There would be much to enjoy in this book if the horrifying - and sometimes hilarious - facts of the world it seeks to unwrap were not so unedifyingly swathed in the clumsy, macho spoutings of yet another sports writer who longs to be a Martin Amis or a Norman Mailer, but who ends up sounding more like a Stuart Hall or an Alan Green, all hammy drama, staccato sentences and gruff sentimentality. "The Shadow had them all," he writes of Dorian Yates, the first British man to be crowned Mr Olympia. "He knew it. And they knew he knew it. And he knew that they knew that he knew it." Good grief! Add to this the crush that Hotten seems to develop on some of his subjects - "The thought of Ronnie, Gunter and Jay standing next to each other on stage, pushing 900lbs diced and sliced, gripped me" - and you'll find your own buttocks toning up in no time at all.
Still, it has its moments. Who knew that Columbus, Ohio, now best known for the crucial role it played in this year's US elections, is home to the annual Arnold Classic, an event still attended, even since his election as governor of California, by Arnie (and, more deliciously, by his twig-like wife, Maria Shriver)? Or that, from time to time, some dried-out musclemen get such violent cramps that they must be carried from the stage, horizontally, in the manner of a cherrywood shelf? Most fascinating of all are the sport's bizarre rituals: the preparation for competition (30 egg whites a day, the application of gallons of fake tan) and its sombre ordinances (entrants should wear "posing trunks of a solid non-distracting colour, which are clean and decent . . . the use of padding anywhere in the trunks is prohibited").
Reading this stuff, it occurred to me that body-building, for all that it is ostensibly about brawn, is the very opposite of what most men mean by masculine. Its leading lights must first cosset themselves like babies, and then strut and preen like models on a catwalk. (Disco version of Carmina Burana, anyone?) This irony, alas, is lost on Hotten. Where you or I might see a brutish smokescreen, a modus operandi for confused control freaks, he sees only beefcake. What a wasted opportunity. He might just as well have spent his time putting together a calendar.
Rachel Cooke writes for the Observer