When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, a reporter asked about the Cohiba label on the cigar Schwarzenegger was smoking.
“That’s a Cuban cigar,” the reporter said. “You’re the governor. How can you flout the law?”
The answer was as good a one-sentence encapsulation of the bodybuilder/entrepreneur/movie star/politician/braggart’s philosophy as all of Total Recall, his 646-page memoir, provides.
“I smoke it because it’s a great cigar,” he said.
This is only one of countless ways Schwarzenegger has prized self-interest throughout his long, glory-stalking and (as he loves pointing out) extremely lucrative career. Total Recall contains nonstop illustrations of how he aims high, tramples on competitors, breaks barriers and savors every victory, be it large or small. Those who mistake Total Recall for a salacious tell-all may not be that interested in how many Mr. Olympia contests he won (seven) or who he beat for a Golden Globe in 1977 (Truman Capote and the kid who played Damien in The Omen).
Let’s get the scandalous stuff out of the way, because Schwarzenegger certainly wants to. About the son he conceived with the family housekeeper, Mildred Baena, in 1996, he says only this: that he had always promised himself not to fool around with the help. That once, “all of a sudden,” he and Baena “were alone in the guesthouse.” And immediately after that: “When Mildred gave birth the following August . . . ”
What Total Recall actually turns out to be is a puffy portrait of the author as master conniver. Nothing in his upward progress seems to have happened in an innocent way.
The book begins with the obligatory description of his Austrian childhood and the fact that he and his brother were forced to do situps to earn their breakfast. He also explains how the bodybuilder photos he pinned up in his room made his mother seek a doctor’s advice. The doctor assured her that these were surrogate father figures, so there was nothing “wrong” with her red-blooded, heterosexual boy.
Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story
By Arnold Schwarzenegger with Peter Petre
Simon & Schuster.
The book moves on to describe a hair-raising stint in an Austrian army tank unit, where antics included driving one tank into water and trying to drag-race with another. This earned him an early release from service. He went on to win bodybuilding titles in Europe, move to the US, garner the attention of the filmmakers who would feature him in Pumping Iron and land the Hollywood acting role he coveted in Stay Hungry.
When told by an acting coach to summon a sense memory of victory, he says, “I had to explain that actually I was not especially exhilarated when I won, because to me, winning was a given.”
And so it goes, through progress from pedestal to pedestal, until Conan the Barbarian makes him an action star. Schwarzenegger and his co-writer, Peter Petre, had to brush up on the details of his acting career by reading biographies and movie journals; his memory for slights, triumphs and salaries seems more reliable than his memory for work. But one way or another, we learn how raw meat was sewn into his Conan costume for a scene in which he is attacked by wolves. (Sadly, the audio version of Total Recall is not fully read by him. You would have to re-watch the film to hear him say: “Hither came I, Conan, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, to tread jeweled thrones of the earth beneath my feet.” But it might be worth it.)