I’ll admit it, I’m a fan of Christopher McDougall.
I can’t say he’s the most artful of writers, but he spins a good yarn, and he has a way of taking subjects that could easily get very preachy, and packages them in a straightforward, simplistic, trust-your-gut kind of way that makes it all very believable.
McDougall is better known as the author of the incredibly popular Born to Run, which would most certainly crack my top five non-fiction books (not that I’ve actually made that list in my head or anything) and might crack my top five books period. When I saw he had a new book out that attempted to give mountain climbing, street fighting, parkour and other natural feats of strength the same treatment that he gave to distance running in Born to Run, I was sold immediately.
Natural Born Heroes is kind of two books in one. It’s the tale of a daring feat of espionage during World War II on the island of Crete, but it’s also a treatise on diet, exercise, and the virtually immeasurable limits of human strength and endurance. The author himself acknowledges in his notes that these two ideas have sort of been smashed together and run through the blender. While exploring the two ideas separately, he realized that there was quite a bit of overlap, and so: one book.
I liked it, but I think I might have liked it better if I hadn’t read Born to Run first. And maybe that’s my fault; it’s not entirely fair to judge a book based on other books, but in this case, it’s hard not to.
Let’s get down to some word salad (see, because in this book and in Born to Run, McDougall makes a big deal out of all the salad he eats):
So, this book is two concepts, right? Those two concepts are excellent, and treated excellently.
I’m not much of a history guy, but the story of the kidnapping of a German general during World War II is fascinating. The tale is audacious from its inception, harrowing in its execution, and compelling from start to finish. Some of the characters bleed together a little bit (there are so bloody many of them, I felt overwhelmed at times), but on the whole the narrative portion of the book is cogent and satisfying.
Then the health and fitness part: this stuff is outstanding. I’m a little biased in this regard. In my recent stabs at fitness (in fact, let’s call them less stabs and more fumbling for light switches in a dark hotel room) I’ve come independently to many of the same conclusions that McDougall makes in this book. To wit: gyms are a waste of time, and natural, functional exercises and movements are not only more efficient but actually make you stronger and more useful in the world. (Think zombie apocalypse. Who do you want in your crew: the musclebound dudebro who can squat 500 lbs and squish your skull with his biceps, or the wiry guy who can scale walls, run for an hour at a decent clip, and deliver a knockout punch with little or no warning? On second thought, maybe you don’t want that guy; if things go sideways, he’d sucker-punch you and leave you as bait.) Further: Most diets are a load of hot garbage. Calorie counting and low-fat foods and all that are for the birds. Eat more vegetables. Eat protein. Stay away from processed sugars and carbs. Profit.
In short (too late!) the creamy center of the book is exactly as advertised, and it makes for really compelling reading (I highlighted and dog-eared the heck out of the book so I can go back through it and look up a bunch of the fitness concepts). It sent me scurrying to youtube more than once to look up things either directly or indirectly referenced by the books (like this and this, for example), which made for a neat experience while reading.
As much as I liked the two foci of this book, I have to quibble. Rather unlike peanuts and nougat, the narrative and the fitness informational do not mesh well on the palate. It feels more like jalapenos and chocolate. (Yeah, I know people eat that crap, but they shouldn’t.)
Maybe it’s because there’s such a broad focus on the fitness concepts (first it’s boxing and pankration and Wing Chun, then it’s parkour and mountain climbing, then it’s fascia and elastic motion, then it’s foraging for herbs in Central Park), or maybe it’s because there are so many damned characters and threads in the WWII story (The story follows mainly Paddy and Xan, the guys at the heart of this abduction attempt, but is also awfully concerned with a veritable host of people who pop in for a chapter to dispense a bit of knowledge and then are never seen again), but the book left my head spinning. It became downright hard to read, sometimes, which is basically a death knell for a novel. It’s a shame, too, because individually the two halves of the book are so strong, but together, like overlapping radio waves, each one interferes with the other’s signal.
For my money, if these two concepts were two separate books, then each of those books would have been stronger in its own right than the swirled mishmash they’ve become in this book.
I have another quibble with the fitness portion of the book, which is that it’s a shotgun blast of information: it hits hard up close, but it dissipates quickly and becomes useless the farther you get from your target. (I have never fired a gun. Thanks, first-person-shooter video games!) I came into the book … expecting isn’t quite the word, because I try not to read with too many expectations … but hoping to learn a lot about natural movement and the merits, strengths, and methods of some of the techniques described within. And … those things are there, but it’s barely a skimming of the surface.
I know, I know; this isn’t an instructional text. But I feel like with so many of the things discussed in this book, all that I can really say I know about them is: they exist. McDougall spends a lot of time talking about the ancient Greek art of pankration, for example, but the only technique he describes in any detail is a heel-kick (the “THIS IS SPARTA” one from 300). Even there, he talks about the force it delivers, but says little about how it’s achieved and how much practice is required to master it.
And for all the book has to say about diet, there’s very little said about the things which would be reasonable to eat. It’s not unusual for books that talk about diet to have … I dunno, an appendix listing, at the very least, a few easy-to-make meals, or a sample shopping list or something? I guess I wanted that portion of the book to be a little more actionable, though again, I may have been wanting too much.
As if the two halves of the book weren’t enough, there’s a third story thrown in there, which is a framing device for the one and connective tissue for the other. That story joins McDougall in his quest to follow in the footsteps of the abductors, and it is in the following of that thread that he learns about these fighting arts, practices parkour, and tracks down a dietary swami.
Of course, none of this is linear — how could it be? — spanning, as it does, several years of research across no less than three continents. So the book jumps from a moment in the abduction to McDougall’s firsthand experience with a rabid historian to a treatise on how the jagged rocks of Crete forced the ancient warriors and goatherds to adapt the way they moved and then back to the abduction and … see, that right there? That dizzy feeling you’re getting? The book does this to you every fifteen pages or so, and it’s disorienting as hell.
Then, amidst all of this historical fiction and apparently well-researched fitness credo, there’s a ton of allusion to Greek myth and legend, up to and including the recent bastardization of those myths vis-a-vis the Percy Jackson series of books (which are fine for what they are, but they’re hardly canon and don’t really deserve a place next to the proper myths of Theseus and Odysseus, for example). These moments seem misplaced and not helpful when they crop up. In fact, they seem like remnants from an earlier draft when they might have been a more central focus of the book, but like a vestigial tail, no longer serve any particularly useful function.
The book was frustrating at times, and took me longer than a book of its length would usually take me for that reason, so it’s hard to give it good marks. For all the natural movement sections left me wanting more, however, those sections had me riveted and kept me coming back. In fact, the movement focus of the book was interesting enough to make me care about the historical portion of the book, which is saying something in my case (the last time I did any extracurricular reading about historical events, outside of awesome freak occurrences like Tunguska, was … let’s see … yeah, never). So that’s something.
If you read Born to Run and enjoyed it, you may well enjoy this, though it will probably not leave you quite as satisfied. Born to Run is a far superior offering in many respects. It is focused where this novel is scattered, it gives depth where this novel dips its toes in the water. Still, this ain’t bad.
I give it three out of five bare footprints in the sand.