Book Review: “Eighth Wonder of the World” Tells the Story of André, the Gentle Giant

Book Review: “Eighth Wonder of the World” Tells the Story of André, the Gentle Giant

You know you’re in the hands of sympathetic biographers when they describe their subject literally shitting on a wrestling opponent (“diarrhea running down his neck”) and conclude diplomatically, “it wasn’t André’s finest moment.”

In fairness, the Giant probably didn’t intend to subject Bad News Brown to precisely that treatment. Sometimes that’s just what happens when you sit around all day drinking Clamato and mezcal, and when your body’s been ravaged by years of abuse on top of acromegaly.

The Giant was a giant as a result of excess growth hormone, resulting in acromegaly and various depredations including chronic back pain. In their new book The Eighth Wonder of the World, authors Bertrand Hébert and Pat Laprade tell the story of Faust just to be sure readers understand what they mean when they write that André made a Faustian bargain in declining to have his condition treated.

When André was told he could undergo an operation to have the hormone-secreting tumor removed, close friend Jackie McCauley told Hébert and Laprade, “he said that God had made him that way and he wasn’t going to change that.” Just over a decade later, the Giant was dead of congestive heart failure.

But what a decade it was. Born André Roussimoff in 1946, the Frenchman who initially performed as Géant Ferré proved adept at both the physical and theatrical sides of pro wrestling. When Vince McMahon, Jr., took the World Wide Wrestling Federation national and made pro wrestling an ’80s pop culture obsession, André was the sport’s most recognizable star aside from golden boy Hulk Hogan.

Laprade was a field producer for HBO’s 2018 documentary André the Giant; unless you’re already a superfan, that film is essential viewing before cracking Eighth Wonder of the World. Director Jason Hehir explains invaluable context that Hébert and Laprade take for granted, establishing that André’s 1987 loss to Hogan at Wrestlemania III represented the end of the era of regional promoters, who dominated the sport when André was coming up in the ’70s.

Readers who know little about professional wrestling — I was unfortunately among them — will find themselves nearly lost at points in Eighth Wonder, when the authors casually drop jargon like “kayfabe,” “suplexes,” “Texas Death Match,” “Mongolian stretcher matches,” and “no-sold.” This is not a book for the uninitiated.

Hébert and Laprade undertake to discern the truth behind some of the many myths that sprung up around the literally larger-than-life figure. Eighth Wonder expands on a point also made in the documentary: in a world before the internet, wrestling promoters could spin whatever stories they wanted about the characters they brought to the mat. The Wrestlemania III duel, for example, was billed as the first match pitting André and Hogan directly against each other; in fact they’d wrestled many times before, but without YouTube or Wikipedia, how were fans to know?

Most astonishingly, André and his promoters successfully kept his true height and weight secret, to the point where even now it’s impossible to know precisely what his dimensions ever were. Every time it became necessary, promoters threw out a set of numbers that were on the high end but seemed plausible; the Giant cut such an awesome figure when he stepped into the ring (always going right over the top rope) that people were ready to believe just about anything.

The authors also deflate the legend about Samuel Beckett driving young André to school. The germ of truth in the story turns out to be that Beckett was a neighbor, and did occasionally drive André and his siblings to school — but not as a matter of routine, and not because André was physically too large for the school bus.

Though Hogan was the hero in the ’80s, posterity has been kinder to André. The jingoistic patriotism exemplified by Hogan leaves a distinctly sour taste in the wake of Trump’s cynical MAGA revival, while André retains his air of international mystique and good-natured bonhomie. In large part that’s due to The Princess Bride, a far more welcome and visible relic of the decade than Hogan’s Rocky III.

André adored the film, traveling with a VCR and cassette he’d show to anyone he could corral into his hotel room. It captured his underlying gentleness, a quality he had to sideline when he turned “heel” (villain) to fight Hogan after a career as a “babyface” (hero).

Hébert and Laprade emphasize the behind-the-scenes leadership role André carved out for himself, relying in part on the size and strength that allowed him to dominate his opponents in the ring — but also on a commitment to professionalism and integrity in a sport that seemed pure absurdity from the stands. “Hogan may have been the main event guy on TV,” remembered wrestler Shawn Michaels, “but André was the main event in the locker room.”

“In the ring, he had faced countless foes,” write the authors in a passage that typifies their awkwardly deferential style, “but in real life, only one human being could challenge André the Giant. His name was André Roussimoff.”

Jay Gabler