Review: Rencor: Life in Grudge City

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Ciudad Rencor has another name; Grudge City. Not quite in the USA, not quite in Mexico, Grudge City is an entire community and economy based around wrestling and lucha libre. For generations, fans and wrestlers have flocked to the city. Movies have been made there, careers begun and ended and two dynasties have defined decades of herioic violence. For genererations the two families feuded in and out of the ring. Masked, flamboyantly magnificent crime was everywhere. Monsters were everywhere else. Wrestlers worked side by side with the police and took down criminals at least as often as they did opponents.

But times change, careers end and none ended as spectacularly as El Mil Calaveras’. A ‘rudo’ or villain, Cal lost the first ever Loser Leaves Town match to his arch nemesis; El Victor. Like his opponent, the ‘tecnico’ was the latest in a line of men to wear the mask. Like his opponent, he had no idea he’d be the last. Their final match was the stuff of legend; both men seriously injured, both men reaching the top of their careers and both men finding nothing else there. Victor made the best of it. Cal left. Neither forgave. Neither forgot.

Until a crime unlike anything else they’ve seen brings Cal back to Grudge City…

The temptation to open this with ‘He’s a wrestler! His partner’s a wrestler! THEY’RE COPS!’ was almost too much but I resisted. The latest from the incomparable Matt Wallace sits, like the city it’s named for, in the middle of some fascinating territory. It’s an action story, a thriller, a horror piece and a love letter to the most flamboyant and magnificent style of professional wrestling in the world.

But it’s also a story and this sounds profoundly odd given some of the subject matter, about hope.

The worst thing that ever happened to El Victor was winning. Wallace does his best work exploring the tecnico’s fading glory and his painful awareness of that. Victor is still the best of the best but he was defined by his opponent. There’s no hero without a villain and that’s a hard lesson for Victor. Harder still is seeing his increasingly broken down grandfather and father and worrying that he shares their fate; the rest of his life signing photos for dwindling audiences of people who came of age after he left the ring.

The best thing that ever happened to Victor was losing. The rudo’s love for the finer things in life, and magnificently criminal past, give him a welcome and very surprising new job. Instead of staying in Rencor and seeing the city fade, he’s given the opportunity to head out into the world and try something new. He’s evolved, but, like Victor, is still drawn to Rencor.

The two men are partnered with two equally impressive female leads. Gypsy, Victor’s ‘assistant’ is in fact frequently the designated grownup in the room. The Thai Boxing Pepper Potts to Victor’s masked Tony Stark she’s also a look at Rencor how it used to be. A magnificent, two fisted confection of secret submarines, evil science and villains who could get a better table at the restaurant than you.

Her counterpart, Special Agent Stella O’Shaugnessey is Cal’s handler. She’s also the most grounded person in the room and Wallace does great work balancing Gypsy’s deep love of Rencor life with Stella’s amused horror. This by no means a normal city. At all. Wrestling match stipulations are built into the local laws. But between the two of them, and Cal and Victor, Wallace makes Rencor a real, lived in place.

A winner, a loser, a fan and an outsider. Four people who are uniquely equipped to understand Rencor are drawn to one of its oddest cases yet. Wallace guides the audience through the world, using location to push plot and character to push both to set up something which is deeply odd, a little ludicrous and surprisingly disturbing. The forces ranged against Cal, Victor, Gypsy and Stella are huge and may not be fully human. For now though, they’re small enough to punch. Just not with a closed if you’re a tecnico. At least not if anyone’s looking…

That, oddly, is where the hope comes from. Victor learns a little about being bad, Cal learns a lot about being good. By the end of the novella the two men are by no means friends but they are complete. The presence of each gives the other permission to be their best and at their best both men are capable of incredible heroism as well as brutality. The masks may never come off, but the men beneath them can change and this is a story about them finding that out.

This is classic Wallace. Funny, bloody-knuckled and character driven, Rencor: Life in Grudge City is a thriller like nothing else you’ll read this year. Essential work from an essential.

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