CAMBRIDGE — The Boston-based writer William Giraldi met his wife in his home state of New Jersey. He was teaching at a small university there; Katie, who’d come to the United States from Taiwan with her family, was an art student.
Now they have three young boys. Giraldi, a novelist and the fiction editor at the Boston University-based literary magazine AGNI, spends his days immersed in reading and writing. Katie, he acknowledges, is the “rudder” of the family.
“She’s the toughest person I’ve ever met,” he says.
For Giraldi, that’s not just an idle compliment. He grew up in a family dominated by men, and by their perceptions of what it means to be a man. His hometown, in fact, is called Manville.
After publishing two novels — the fantastical debut “Busy Monsters” and the thriller “Hold the Dark,” which is being made into a motion picture — Giraldi has written a new memoir about the man’s world of his upbringing, and its consequences. “The Hero’s Body” examines the teenage years he spent in Manville in pursuit of bodybuilding glory, and the loss of his father in a horrific, high-speed motorcycle accident when he was still in his 40s.
For years, Giraldi says, he refused to see that his family’s high regard for reckless masculinity was a subject worthy of literature.
“I put off this book for a long time,” says Giraldi, sitting in the monastic, book-filled front room of his family’s two-bedroom apartment in a Cambridge courtyard building. “I was ashamed. It wasn’t until I was able to mature as an individual that I realized it was nothing to be ashamed of.”
Today, at 40, Giraldi is physically compact, almost aggressively average. Padding around the apartment in a T-shirt, a baggy pair of cargo shorts, and bare feet — visitors leave their shoes at the door — he shows no sign of once having earned enough muscle mass and definition to compete as a bodybuilder.
Other than roughhousing with his boys and walking to work at BU, he says, he gets very little exercise. In the winter, he’ll ride a stationary bike at the university; in summer, he’d rather drink beer.
But there was a time when he lived for the rituals of the gym — the grunting, heaving weight training, the preening in front of mirrors and, in an era before such performance enhancement was considered taboo, the injection of steroids.
“The Hero’s Body” opens with a harrowing recollection of a youthful bout with meningitis. For years, Giraldi assumed he became obsessed with weightlifting as a response to his perceived weakness.
“It was a fortification against all the missiles in the world that are aimed at you,” he remembers. “Here’s this omnivorous world that’s ready to chew you up.”
Only later in life did it occur to him that his hunger for weight training also may have been an appeal to the machismo of his father’s lineage. No one in his family read books. The men aspired to the classic John Wayne/Clint Eastwood archetype: an honorable man doesn’t use words, but actions.
Once, while in high school, Giraldi fell into a funk after a girlfriend broke up with him. When, in an effort to explain himself, he showed his father a pile of old love notes, his father marched the son into the garage. There he kept a cedar chest that contained stacks of notes written to him over the years by Billy’s mother — the woman who’d left him a few years prior for another man.
“Words are easy,” Giraldi’s father said bitterly. “A person’s words aren’t worth [expletive].”
To bring the point home, he took the cedar chest into the backyard, doused it with gasoline, and lit a match. The father and son stood together “staring at the fire,” Giraldi writes, “at all of my mother’s untrue sentences disappearing in black smoke.”
Yet for Giraldi, words are everything.
“Language has always been holy to me,” he says. From a young age, when he attended Catholic school, he was enthralled by the liturgy.
“I loved the whole show, the pageantry of it,” he recalls. “As a storyteller, that was an incomparable education.”
Later, working behind the desk at the gym, he often concealed the latest novel he was reading inside the pages of a muscle magazine. His casual conversation is peppered with references to quotes by his favorite writers — Emerson, Wilde, Kafka (“I am made of literature”) — or from the novels he cherishes.
Sven Birkerts, the essayist and editor of AGNI, says that Giraldi recently mentioned that he’d spent two months devouring work by and about Melville and rereading “Moby-Dick” for a piece he’s been working on.
“I think he is a deeply obsessive individual,” Birkerts says. “He has this quality of deep absorption. His bookishness is quite amazing, especially because he presents as just a regular guy.”
Giraldi says he labors over his writing, often pacing more than typing. Some days, he might work eight hours to produce five sentences. He wishes his father was still alive so he could correct him: Words aren’t easy.
“Not the right ones,” he says.
Having lived in Boston for the better part of 20 years, Giraldi only recently developed an urge to revisit the middle-class community where he grew up. His life here is complicated, he says, by academia and literary circles.
Going home to visit his grandparents or his Uncle Nicky means “I don’t have to discuss literature,” he says. “I can just grill hot dogs or talk about motorcycles, or go fishing.”
He doesn’t ride motorcycles himself, but he did spend plenty of time examining the circumstances of his father’s death. The police report indicated his father was going about 100 miles per hour on a back road when he encountered a sudden bend and hit the guardrail.
The apartment door swings open and Giraldi’s oldest boy, Ethan, 6, walks in looking dejected. He feels a little sick to his stomach, he tells his father after a little prodding.
When Katie follows, towing 4-year-old Aiden and carrying the newborn Caleb, she explains that Ethan bumped his head in the playground. The teacher doesn’t think it’s a concussion, she says.
Giraldi notes that Ethan complained of an upset stomach yesterday. The bump on the head is probably unrelated.
Later that evening, they’ll spend three hours in the emergency room.
From ‘The Hero’s Body’ by William Giraldi:
Earlier that day, my brother and I asked Pop if we could display a large photo of my father and his bike, and that photo was the first thing you saw at the wake: my father grinning behind the machine that killed him. We wanted it there without fully comprehending why; we probably would have told you that he loved the thing, and we loved him, so there it was, an effort to honor his unstanchable passion.
But I suspect now that we were trying to remain faithful to our family’s legacy of motorcycle eros, to those particular codes of esteem, to the cult of speed to which our father and uncles and Pop belonged, as if this cult were his singular source of definition. . . . This was the bike as crucifix, as True Cross, so fitting for a clan of Catholics. The instrument of death became the object of veneration.