The true story of Arnold Schwarzenegger's life? One might reasonably ask, "Which story? Which Arnold?"
There are so many of them. Arnold the apparently professional narcissist, Arnold the ambitious immigrant, Arnold the business whiz, Arnold the action-movie hero.
Arnold among the Kennedys, Arnold the unfaithful husband, Arnold the head of state, Arnold the enlightened crusader. Arnold, Arnold, Arnold!
They're all here in this astonishing autobiography. Good thing none of them is a wimp or a bore.
Schwarzenegger learned to write the hard way. His father, a rural Austrian police officer, was an abusive drunk who ran his family like a commando. When he took his two sons on an outing, he forced them to write detailed essays about their experience.
It was miserable at the time, but Arnie wound up writing several successful books in his second language, including The Education of a Bodybuilder, a bestseller in 1977 and still in print. Add to his own talent the sophisticated skills of his co-author Peter Petre, former editor of Fortune magazine and you have the makings of, well, a Hollywood blockbuster.
Total Recall is, above all, a marvellously entertaining book, that rare non-fiction work that reads like imaginative and engrossing fiction. It will force you to put your suspicions and your secret talent for stereotyping others aside. It is, by turns, funny, touching, painful and elevating.
Schwarzenegger struggles with self-examination and family dynamics. It was his father, Gustav, who rejected and belittled and beat him as a child, who drove him away from home as far away as America, and who inspired in him an obsessive-compulsive drive to be strong, independent and endlessly disciplined.
In short, to be the best.
Many celebrities have been destroyed by far less success than Arnold Schwarzenegger. At 21 in 1968, he was crowned Mr. Universe, living out the bodybuilder's dream in his new-found Los Angeles. The ladies required no finesse -- they were willing to line up and take a number.
Ten years later he had learned English, earned a college degree and a sizable fortune from real estate.
Twenty years later, in spite of his strange body, name and accent, he was one of the top-five movie stars in the world.
Total Recall reveals that the world's manliest man has a soft and tender side very close to the surface. He admits to being scared silly of his voice coach, to crying from the pain and frustration of a broken leg in a skiing accident, and to being blown away by the humanity of Nelson Mandela's ability to forgive his persecutors.
The book is bound to attract those looking for salacious details about his affair with his housekeeper, Mildred Baena, and their son Joseph, now a teenager. Wife Maria Shriver confronted him with it the morning after his last day as governor of California.
He again admits his mistake, apologizes, and, ever the optimist, restates his hopes for redemption. The apology does not lack humility; neither does it promise a change of behaviour, which successful apologies usually articulate.
Schwarzenegger's surprising emotional intelligence is accompanied in the book by a sharp political intuition that took him through two terms as governor.
Consistent with the rest of his life, he cannot be neatly categorized, calling himself neither conservative nor liberal, but open-minded, a difficult path to follow in U.S. politics. But then, as Arnie says, "Never follow the crowd. Go where it's empty."
Now 65 and with no plans to retire from movies or public life, he says he doesn't mind if you can judge him, love him or hate him. He never argues with people who criticize him, and he has always enjoyed being underestimated. Just "don't confuse me with your average Franz or Hans."
Total Recall puts paid to any such possibility.
Lesley Hughes is a Winnipeg writer and broadcaster with a new appreciation for pumping iron.