Over the Top II: Down the Hatch

“There are no second acts in American lives.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Eff Scott Fitzgerald!” -Lincoln Hawk

• • •

over_the_top2After a meteoric rise from anonymous trucker to world arm-wrestling champion, Lincoln Hawk has hit bottom. A severe wrist injury incurred during a routine pre-match hat backwarding ended his career, and just four years later he is a broken man, paunchy and bitter. Overalls are out of style, and he earns a meager subsistence living by scrounging occasional work from fly-by-night trucking operations, lamenting a lost relationship with his son.

Hawk is overjoyed when his son’s much-rejected medical school application is finally accepted by a quasi-accredited institution on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. But with his arm-wrestling winnings spent on wrist rehab, bicep oils, and a custom in-cabin SoloFlex system, Hawk can’t afford the tuition. His emasculation is complete, his son’s dream of becoming a urologist all but dashed.

An anguished Hawk seeks solace in a truck stop buffet, where, in a fog of grief, he eats the diner to the ground. Mountains of hash and ham steaks razed, a quart of gravy disappeared, a rotating jewel case of desserts left squeaking as it slowly turns, bereft of pie. Captivated by this gastrointestinal tableau, his server Darlene returns to Linc’s sleeper cabin for a roll in the hay. But before they can consummate their union, Linc breaks down sobbing, revealing the secret shame of his inability to provide for his son. An astonished Darlene reveals that she is a graduate of the St. Lucia school of medicine, and Hawk, encouraged by this cosmic coincidence, vows once more to help his son.

Arm-wrestling is no longer an option for the superannuated Hawk, so he turns to another contest of strength, dexterity, and dedication: competitive eating. But he quickly learns that tenacity alone is not enough to succeed in the cutthroat world of speed eating, and in his early matches he is out-eaten and mercilesssly mocked by Oleg, the circuit’s top eater, trained since childhood for eating stardom by a shadowy cabal of Soviet scientists. Hawk realizes that to succeed, he must recapture the literal and metaphysical hunger that drove him to go over the top on his arm-wrestling foes, the devotion that compelled him to do one-handed tricep curls while long-haul trucking, the resolve that allowed him to unironically wear overalls. And he’ll do it the only way he knows how: a training montage, taking him from tentative, nauseated nibbles at his third butter stick to aggressively devouring entire pot pies with total disregard for both personal safety and the strictures of the food pyramid.

Rediscovering his champion’s heart, Linc becomes a force on the circuit. He is a ferocious competitor with a hidden advantage: the ability to unhinge his jaw like a snake swallowing its prey, the result of a poorly-healed break from a long-ago truck-stop beating. After stunning experts and onlookers with third-place finishes and five-figure purses at the Burrito Bay Double Glutton Challenge and the Fatty Arbuckle Memorial Classic, Hawk claims a shocking upset victory at the Three Gorges Pro-Am.

With a win at the season’s final and most prestigious event, the Hellman’s Invitational, Hawk can afford his son’s tuition. But he is in a race against time: the league’s medical staff has warned him that his training was too rapid, his body unprepared to process eight pounds of mayonnaise in 120 seconds. He’d ignored agonizing esophageal distension and colon spasms for weeks, but now Hawk faces an ultimatum from the head trainer. “Linc, you’ve inspired all of us. You inspired me to go back to school, and yesterday I found my daughter drinking Mrs. Butterworth’s from the bottle, just like you taught her. But that much mayonnaise will kill you Linc. It will kill you. You have to think of your son.” Fixing her with a steely glare, Hawk slowly backwards his hat. “I am thinkin’ of my son!”

Minutes before the first heat, Hawk sits alone in the locker room. His wrists are taped, his hat backwards, one strap of his overalls unclasped. His face betrays determination and fear in equal measure. He thinks back to his training, to the times he’d tried vainly to fight back his body’s most primitive urges to keep from vomiting; to the times he’d lain feebly clutching his abdomen while his ileum tightened like a hangman’s noose; to the times he’d stoically borne the agony of his duodenum distending to encompass yet another matzo ball swallowed whole. He faces a life or death decision … but then, he’s already made the decision: it’s not about his life, it’s about his son’s life. And surely eight pounds of mayonnaise isn’t enough to kill a man, anyway.

When Oleg takes an early lead in the finals, Hawk showcases how a champion responds to adversity by going over the top and claiming the title, setting a new record in the event—the most prestigious record in the sport, the purest encapsulation of the form; the 100-meter dash of competitive eating. Even Oleg, his erstwhile nemesis, has come to respect Hawk’s skill and heart, which a later autopsy showed was three sizes too big. But shortly after posing for pictures with a Hellman’s descendant and a large ceremonial check, Hawk collapses in pain, pounds of tepid mayonnaise now marauding through his innards, overwhelming his body’s natural defenses. And as his vision fades to a pinpoint, Linc imagines his son one day pulverizing the kidney stones of a Fortune 500 CEO, and is at peace.

Four years later, he awakens, his life saved only by the quick thinking of a maverick gastroenterologist and a radical intestinal reconstructive surgery. Weakened and emaciated, Hawk is greeted by Oleg and his son, Dr. Lincoln Hawk, Jr. Locking eyes with his pride and joy while a tear rolls down his cheek, he asks “Can I get a reuben?”

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