Imagine that someone wrote a book about everyone you know. As it happens, someone has!
I had to get my mitts on the newest derby book to hit the merch booths the second I heard about it at Easterns this year. Bane-Ana, the itinerant mascot, men's derby player, and urban dictionary entry, has attempted to find the distilled essence of Derby-As-We-Know-It in his memoir Roller Derby: The Sensation That Caused a Book! Confessions of a Roller Derby Mascot. Roller derby, you might note, is the sensation that caused about a dozen books. What makes this one different, you wonder? The answer is Bane-Ana himself.
I have known, or rather known of, Bane-Ana for almost as long as I've been involved with derby. After the initial confusion of "who is that guy and why is he in a banana suit," I decided I liked him, if only from afar. Unironic exuberance is one of my favorite personality traits, and I'm willing to overlook a whole lot of dorkiness if it is sincere. This guy has it in spades. So even though I don't know his family-issued name—sure there's what's on Facebook, but our banana plays pretty fast and loose with reality—I’ve always felt warmly toward him, pom poms and all. I think now of all of us new to the scene, thinking my what a handsome and affable banana that is, little knowing that he was the derby lovechild of Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Robbins, and Nabokov.
So the boring version of this review tells you about the book beginning with how Bane-Ana got his start with the Long Island Roller Rebels, and follows him for the next couple of years as he crisscrosses the country (venturing to London) as a mascot-to-let for Charm City, the Vagine Regime, any other takers. And it would tell you how he introduces a cast of characters whose names we all know, Holly GoHardly, Melicious, Estro Jen and so many others. But really that is his story to tell, and far be it from me to ruin the narrative. So instead I’ll tell you about what I got out of it.
This book is about roller derby, but this book is not about roller derby. It’s definitely not about how the sport is played, and it’s not entirely reliable as a history of the sport, not solely as a result of the number of perception altering substances our narrator admits to consuming. It’s about derbylove and the man, the myth, the banana who embodies it. His character comes through not just in the segments of frank and sometimes unpretty introspection, but in the telling of the story as well. Above all else, our humble narrator is a romantic—from the way he rhapsodizes about the cohesion and sacrifice of the derby community and the strength of the women in it, to the way that he turns simple requests into quests. He is Don Quixote in a banana costume, searching for derbylove in all the right places. Within two pages it was clear: this is a guy who writes love letters. Indeed, I was holding a 308-page one in my hands.
It is nigh impossible to not appreciate the unflinching way he shares with us, perfect strangers, the inner workings of his occasional mental health issues. As someone prone to rushes of [usually pretty manageable] anxiety, particularly around derby, it is a cup of hot chamomile to my high-strung soul to hear one of the most laid back-seeming dudes I've ever met share stories of hiding out in the loo with crippling shame and wanting to puke from nerves before a bout. Getting to hear his inner monologue reminds us that derbylove is not just about the camaraderie born of work and fun, it’s also about creating together in spite of our baggage.
This is a book for people who appreciate the English language. Our narrator can be forgiven much in the way of veracity and technical accuracy (it’s Texecutioners) in exchange for what he gives us in terms of wordplay and impression. This may be a nonstarter for some, but I am an avowed word nerd—my little heart fluttered for a moment when he called out Jalapeño Business as one of the best names in the game. To be sure, there are some groaners: one of the marks of true wordsmiths (and rollergirls?) is that they aren’t afraid to try and fail, fail, fail. But this comes with its moments of transcendence. An interview with Althea N. Hell of the Chicago Outfit becomes a seedy backroom audience with the Don, a skating trip with the Angel City Derby Girls becomes a float through the clouds with angels. I never, ever thought that I would find myself stifling laughter in public while reading about some guy taking a shit. If Bane-Ana ever reads this, he should know that I have met his wordplay soulmate, and his next quest needs to be to track down a Fraggle in Missouri. Adventure awaits!
There are only two things that prevent this from being a complete masterpiece in my mind. First is the eye dialect. I say this from a place of love and admiration: I am a Texan. I was just in Texas. I just talked to some of the people featured in the book, and I talk just like some of the people featured in the book. Texans do not talk like that. Lands alive, man, I have never met a Texan who uses ‘y’all’ as a second-person singular, and I have kin from very, very small towns. And even if they did talk like that, the thing that chaps my padded ass about eye dialect is that it implies that the ‘we’ is of the same ilk as the narrator, but the truth is that ‘we’ read the standard-spelling English text with own accents, not that of the narrator (Lon Guyland, anyone?). Basically, it smacks of classism, elitism, and regional bias, and, yes, I recognize all of these things as unintentional. Nevertheless, when I read something like “Yeah, ya’ll soun’ lie ya’ll from Nuh Yor’” it makes me have a mini rage blackout, not least of all from the persistently misplaced apostrophes in ‘y’all.’
The other thing is the use of the term “whore” more than a handful of times as an insult for hostile, stupid, or otherwise undesirable female characters. I am not saying that Bane-Ana is a sexist, not by a long shot. It is absolutely clear that he loves women, and loves rollerwomen most of all. It’s just that we operate in a sexist society where we’re still working out our issues on slut shaming, and so words that indicate sexual permissiveness are still used to characterize women as bad. That’s not his fault. But it’s precisely because Bane-Ana is such a loving and intelligent guy that words like that stand out to me as distasteful, like when someone you love and respect calls someone a “retard” and you have a little dry heave.
I want to temper those last two paragraphs with the very sincere assessment that, in many ways, this is the perfect derby book for someone like me, who just as interested in what roller derby signifies emotionally and culturally as what it is or where it is going as a sport. This is roller derby from the liberal arts perspective. And let’s be perfectly honest, with all the openness and vulnerability, I am a little bit in derby-love with Bane-Ana now. I can not comprehend the hecklers or those who claim to “hate that fucking banana guy.” I would not hesitate to hold his hand as an airplane takes off (and I suspect you wouldn't either); hey, I can’t leave a banana hangin’! This endearment has already manifested itself in my little way. As I congratulated him on a job well done in the parking lot after NYSE won the MRDA Championships (yeah, that happened, more on it later), like a roller derby Jean Valjean, he dropped a pilfered loaf of bread from the ref room onto the asphalt. He called after me, “I’ll make Tex toast!” As I turned to get into my car, I murmured “you butter believe it” —a high five between an extravert and an introvert.
I have to give this book 7 out of 8 wheels, with the understanding that, like the question of whether or not derby is a spectacle (and I'm with the banana on this one), the feeling is extraordinarily subjective. I can’t emphasize enough, this book is not Down and Derby. It's not supposed to be, and I love it all the more for it. As for certain leagues that Bane-Ana claims to have left, however amicably, I have only this to say: sorry, homes, blood in blood out. You're one of us por vida.