BOOK REVIEW: STEROID NATION
NOVEMBER 28, 2007
I have to admit…I wanted to like this book. I still want to like this book. I’m struggling to remember parts of it that I actually did like, and trying to weigh them against the parts I didn’t like, and come out with an overall favorable opinion on the book. I really tried…and I’m still trying. But the truth is that I just don’t like this book.
Of course, I’m talking about Steroid Nation, by Shaun Assael. If you say his last name fast enough, I think you will get a fair impression of what I think of him. No, really, try it.
Unlike most people who have the luxury of choosing what they read, I have to read literally everything that comes down the pike concerning anabolic steroids. Sometimes this is interesting (like the first half of the book Steroid Nation) and sometimes it’s boring (like the second half of the book Steroid Nation).
Alright, since this is a book review, I’m going to have to start reviewing the book at some point I guess. Steroid Nation is a workmanlike effort, addressing one of the most controversial topics in modern sports, and astoundingly manages to do so without a hint of controversy. And by controversy, I mean personality. This book has no personality. And by personality, I mean something that makes it something substantially more than a collection of summarized newspaper articles.
Although there are numerous technical errors (page 280 speaks about “TestosteroneCypionate pills”), those aren’t too upsetting – they just serve to provide further evidence that the author is writing about a topic that he doesn’t particularly understand.
I’ve seen this type of effort out of the author previously, immediately following Operation Raw Deal, when ESPN interviewed him, and his answers were direct (often almost verbatim) copies from the DEA press release issued earlier that morning. Yes, he read a press release, and then proceeded to give an interview about the bust that the press release covered (while being hailed as ESPN’s resident steroid expert), adding absolutely no original research or information of his own. Most of Assael’s work is a Cliff Notes version of anything you could find in any newspaper or magazine.
Except for very specific areas, Steroid Nation follows the same formula. He read some stuff, about some people who were involved in a world he is not a part of, then tried to make it all into a coherent story. The only resemblance to a coherent story that this book has is that it follows a linear time-line and the numbers at the bottom of the page all seem to be in proper sequential order (the former I can attest to, the latter I am assuming).
This book is probably, as I remarked to a colleague over at Yahoo! Sports, the best book a total outsider to this world could hope to write. What this means is that the author had the bad luck to be writing as an outsider about a topic that is a closed fraternity. The best interviews he conducted were with people who were has-beens in the steroid world at best.
Did you know that the founder of Champion Nutrition (Michael Zumpano) co-authored the Underground Steroid Handbook with Dan Duchaine? Well, you should…he was also a steroid dealer, as were the owners of many nutritional companies…and this is all old news if you have ever read Nelson Montana’s decade old article about the history of the supplement industry. In fact, if you’ve read Nelson’s books, you’d already know most of what is in Steroid Nation, regarding the supplement industry and steroid dealers.
So is my beef with this book simply the fact that it’s old news for the most part? No…that’s not my problem with it. Instead of just telling you what my problem (well…my 2 main problems), I’ll show you instead. I’m going to talk about two guys whom the book covers, and show you exactly what my problem is. Bill Phillips and Dan Duchaine, when you really think about it, are very similar (ok, not “very” but indulge me for a second, and you’ll see what I mean).
Some of the information Steroid Nation on Bill Phillips is actually very interesting, to be quite frank. It presents him as a ruthless and savvy businessman, and also as a bit of a scumbag. That’s all well and good – and boring and safe. What is not mentioned – probably because it’s neither boring nor safe - is where Phillips got the money to fund his publishing company (yes, I know where he got the money, and no it wasn’t legal). Also not mentioned is that the first edition of Anabolic Reference Guide actually says “6th Edition” on the cover (to make it seem that it had already sold out in 5 other printings – which it certainly had not).
Bill’s old Editor-in-Chief (T.C. from MuscleMedia2000) is a friend of mine. Well…maybe not a friend, but someone I have worked for, drank a few dozen beers with, and had numerous exchanges with. Well, I guess that by “friend”, I suppose I mean that if I were hit by a car and killed today, when he eventually found out, he’d mention in passing to mutual acquaintances that I was a half decent guy, and certainly didn’t deserve to die at 29.
In any case, my hypothetical death not withstanding, I’ve had several enlightening exchanges with T.C. and I can’t say that Steroid Nation is inaccurate (at least not in any meaningful way), but it’s certainly nowhere near as colorful as what T.C. has told me personally regarding Phillips (if you are interested in wife/girlfriend-swapping, cocaine/Ecstasy/drug-use, and that kind of thing – which I certainly am). Have I mentioned that T.C. was given a naked photo (life size) of a girl Phillips was dating, by Bill himself? None of this, naturally, made it into the book.
Bill Phillips is largely seen as a total scumbag in the supplement industry. He ushered in the era of earning trust by being a straight shooter, then cashing in on it by later lying. Remember when he said HMB “feels like Deca”? And why doesn’t he ever mention his steroid-based past when he’s on his motivational “speaking tours” now?
Most of the information on Dan Duchaine, on the other hand, is far more interesting than anything written about Phillips or any other equally worthy subjects, and that’s the problem I have with this book. Dan’s love of homosexual porn (well documented in “Dirty Dieting” and other writings of Duchaine), deviant sex, drug use, and everything else is laid bare. I think that if you’re going to tell the total truth about some people, and leave things out about others – it ruins your credibility.
Both men (Phillips and Duchaine) are authors of steroid books, both men have worked in the nutritional industry, and both have been well documented to have some interesting exploits with sex and drugs. But only one of them is relentlessly attacked in this book. The other is mostly glossed over. And this is how the book goes…soft targets (dead men, people who can’t sue, etc…) are attacked and assaulted, while those with money and the ability to retaliate are left alone. It’s as gutless as it is obvious.
And that’s my main problem with Shaun Assael and his book. It’s safe. He attacks a dead man who has been nothing but honest throughout his short (and often tragic) life. Duchaine was a highly flawed man – but at least he was honest. And for his honesty, Steroid Nation attempts to kill his memory…but only succeeds in martyring him further in my eyes. But when it comes to showing some guts and telling the truth about people who are still alive (read: people who can defend themselves), the book takes the easy way out.
My secondary problem with this book – if you discount the fact that from an author’s point of view it’s not written very well – is that the author picks the very last page to vomit out his absurd personal opinion on steroids. The author suggests that steroids, for the average person, conjures up the idea of cheaters (Barry Bonds) and murderers (Chris Benoit)…and I just can’t agree with this idea at all. The average person just doesn’t think that way, and if they do, it’s because of absurd books like this one.
The only positive thing that I can say about it is that I like the cover. Hell, I should…the bodybuilder on it is the same one I used for the cover of my first book.