Go Home, Women’s Wrestling!: A Conversation with Gene Kwak

Writer Gene Kwak released his debut novel, Go Home, Ricky!, about an indie wrestler named Ricky Twohatchet, earlier this year. In it, Ricky is trying to make ends meet after sustaining an injury in the ring, breaking up with his girlfriend, and receiving core-shaking news about his identity and upbringing. It’s the newest piece of pop culture that focuses on men’s wrestling after the halcyon days of the a women’s wrestling evolution that went mainstream.

Cast your mind back to 2019: GLOW had just aired its third and—though we didn’t know it yet—final season, Florence Pugh kicked off her banner year by playing Paige in Fighting with My Family, Total Divas and Total Bellas were still on air, and Becky Lynch was wrestling’s biggest crossover star since John Cena. Wrestling was cool again—or at least as cool as it was ever going to be since its late ’90s heyday—and women were spearheading that, coinciding with the pinnacle of the women’s wrestling evolution.

Two years later, it appears that it was all a fever dream. Total Divas hasn’t filmed since 2019, GLOW was unceremoniously canceled due to the logistics of filming a wrestling show in a pandemic (nevermind the fact that actual wrestling companies have continued on) and Becky Lynch has only just returned from taking a year off at the height of her popularity to have a baby.

As commentary for the first women’s main event of WrestleMania, at the 35th installment in 2019, would have us believe, the women’s “evolution [is] complete.” The second women’s main event of WrestleMania (and the first between two Black wrestlers of any gender) between Sasha Banks and Bianca Belair this year notwithstanding, women’s wrestling in WWE has continued to experience periods of pre-#GiveDivasAChance dismality, the most recent of which was two consecutive episodes of SmackDown in September with no women’s matches at all. But hey, women can wrestle in Saudi Arabia now so they’re equal, right? Women’s wrestling doesn’t fare much better in AEW, where their women’s division has proved problematic for bookers since day one, and many women’s matches are pushed to AEW Dark on YouTube.

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Men’s wrestling, however, is thriving, with AEW a smorgasbord of white male indie darlings. The majority of the VICE docuseries Dark Side of the Ring has been about problematic men, and despite Netflix’s reasoning that producing a show about wrestling was too risky, that hasn’t stopped Starz from greenlighting men’s wrestling show Heels starring Stephen Amell, the first season of which just concluded. Similarly, a fictionalized retelling of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s upbringing, Young Rock, aired earlier this year on NBC to great success. It will take more to convince me, but the general consensus is that men’s wrestling is back on top.

Which brings us to Go Home, Ricky!, by far the best mainstream representation of wrestling since GLOW. And while, yes, the novel is centered on a young man’s experience, Kwak wanted to use his main character to illuminate other identities.

“It was about showing different elements of toxic masculinity,” he tells me. When I posit the thesis of this essay to him, he exclaims that, “promoting women shouldn’t be an angle, it should just be a thing!” Indeed.

“My goal as a writer is to render everybody on the page with a level of grace,” he continues. “I still want to give them agency. There are people who come and go in the book but you still get a sense that they’re still living their lives off the page.”

“There were questions I wanted to tackle as a writer: a character who was on a search for his father, identity, masculinity, his relationship with his mother, wrestling, midwestern stuff…,” Kwak says. “It’s a wrestling book but there’s actually not a lot of wrestling in it. It’s about how wrestling informs [Ricky’s] life and his viewpoints. It’s a book about the search for his father but it’s actually about his mother. There’s all these different ways that I tried to play with or upend expectations and I hope people pick up on that.”

These are the nuanced unpackings of modern masculinity and racial identity in America that current mainstream depictions of wrestling only wish they could pull off. During our conversation, Kwak and I talk about how GLOW, Friday Night Lights and Ted Lasso succeed in being about subcultures that viewers don’t necessarily have to be interested in “because there’s so much about the humanity of the characters so that you care” about them rather than the pretense, Kwak says.

Parallels can be drawn, too, with Reservation Dogs and the Native students Ricky mentors, which is both ironic given the aforementioned revelation about his ethnic background, but is also inspired by Kwak’s work with Gateway to College.

“I really wanted to write a midwestern book…,” says Kwak, who was born and raised in Nebraska, where he still lives and teaches at the University of Nebraska. “I always wanted the book to be about a character addressing his whiteness, so I had to make him confront that head on. It’s such a commonplace thing for a lot of white Americans to grow up with [a lore of having Native American ancestry in their genetic background] as part of their family history. Even Elizabeth Warren, who’s a very intelligent person, just heard it in a family story and ran with that narrative and never cared to look into it.”

Despite the sophisticated identity politics that Go Home, Ricky! traverses, it is absolutely a book for wrestling fans. Kwak cites his inspiration as growing up as a wrestling fan in the heyday of the ’80s and ’90s, a time when both wrestling and the literary canon were both full of straight, white men “careening through the world, almost oblivious to the people they’re hurting or affecting,” he says. The inside baseball terminology of Kwak’s writing—listing off men who’ve sacrificed their bodies for wrestling that reads like an episode log of Dark Side of the Ring, for example—will satisfy the most hardcore fans, while laypeople won’t feel alienated.

While tastes seem to have ebbed back towards men’s wrestling for the time being, Go Home, Ricky! shows that this doesn’t have to mean that the stories just have to be about straight, white, cisgender men. As we wait for the flow towards a more equitable version of professional wrestling, it’s an ethos that other pop cultural products about wrestling and, indeed, wrestling proper could use much more of.