Zero Tollerance

by Toller Cranston with Martha Lowder Kimball

Reviewed by Lorrie Kim, October 29, 1997

This book is not what you think. Rather, it is all that, and then it is something more, something terribly important and magnificent. Yes, it is a wild ride, but you've all seen those quotes already; I will write about the rest of it.

The man is changing. The scope of his ambition is grander than it has ever been. He is leaving behind the extreme, artifact-laden spectacle period of his life, but without hating it or himself; he is learning the great art of self-protection; in addition to being a painter and le Patineur du Siècle, proud to be different from all, he desires to be normal. Imagine if Oksana Baiul stopped running, and sought emotional wealth. That is the moment at which we find our hero.

He desires the humble and raw love that occurs within families, like the love he saw at his great, respected enemy Carlo Fassi's funeral, or at Brian Pockar's. He is bothered that he has no children. He is grieved by the lack of love, within his family and within skating.

Among Cranston's many firm and admirable beliefs is a high esteem for fairness. Kind people are thanked often in this book, and by name. Michael Rosenberg is mentioned for taking time off his busy schedule to attend Pockar's funeral, otherwise almost devoid of skating folk. (He notes that he cannot guess whether his own agents, IMG, would do the same for him.) Friend (not lover) Robert Desrosiers is thanked for being one of the few people who had the insight to understand Cranston's misery during his suicidal, drug-addicted early 1990's, when Cranston was too depressed to reach out.

His fairness extends to generosity. In a chapter entitled "The Great Unknowns," Cranston uses his authorial power to pay tribute to gifted, less famous skaters.

Oh yes, payback comes for enemies as well. Cranston directly accuses Carlo Fassi of dirty dealings with ISU officials, especially 1976 referee Sonia Bianchetti. He doesn't disrespect John Curry's skating; he just describes the helplessness of feeling that there was a conspiracy against him, and he is willing to name names, which goes a long way toward counterbalancing his own admitted history of paranoia.

One thing about Cranston that surprised me was that he has a gracious, respectful, unafraid approach to age and aging. He does not worship youth or youth culture. The sight of a fiftyish ballerina's lined face fills with him exultation, for it is proof that a person may continue to perform with passion as long as they choose. He discusses the moment he realizes his youth is lost, and he is middle-aged, and the voice is observant and accepting.

Words that appear frequently in the text: Spinster. Pristine. Cruel. When was the last time you heard someone say "spinster" in the course of conversation? He says it so often, I wondered if it revealed what he thought of himself. "Pristine" -- I came to see it as a marker of things that are extremely important to Cranston. Memories he invokes in (doomed) self-defense are pristine; the behavior of trustworthy, sane people is pristine. "Cruel." A word that signalled to me Cranston's considerable powers of detached observation, of his own behavior, or of life.

The book is well-written. Cranston's word choice shows that he reveres language as he reveres color, movement, fragrance, sound, and savor. And not to be missed: the book's (co-writer Martha Kimball's, probably) elevation of the chapter subtitle to the highest of arts (see "Lovely Breasts," or "Charlotte's Leg" -- and the subsequent paragraphs always, always deliver even more than the subtitles promise).

As I read, I formed the image of Cranston as the most brilliant, the most breathtaking bird -- which, I realized as I approached it, was trembling under its plumage, its warm breast pounding with a panicky beat. He is different from the rest of us, yes. And it is glorious, yes, and worthwhile. But a person cannot love the difference, only admire it. Love is for the warmth, for the trembling, for the heart beneath the feathers which is the same as the rest of us, and glorious, and worthwhile.

Well, I think the book is a success. And I feel a sort of amused sympathy at the ambivalence, maybe disappointment, maybe horror, that I imagine Cranston might feel as he promotes it. He describes the epic auction of all his belongings a few years ago, and this book is the same: for $32.50 Canadian, we can buy the fantastical treasures he has hoarded over the years, which he wants to put away from himself now; and he will face the brutal shock of seeing his life in store windows wherever he passes, as a constant warning of what not to return to or become.

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