A Poetics For Bullies by Stanley Elkin, 1965
The magic trick:
Eloquently writing about the love/hate combo Push feels toward the new kid
Everyone in the school seems to fall in love the new boy in town, much to the chagrin of Push the bully. Clearly though, Push, too, is quite taken with John, who represents everything Push wants but can’t be.
Now that’s a nice idea, a nice little premise, by the author. But of course, the idea is the easy part. Bringing it to life through a story is the far more difficult task, and Elkin handles the job brilliantly, writing with emotion and detail about Push’s love-hate relationship. Push, who narrates the story in the first person, begins by describing the new kid in simple, physical, observational terms. But soon he is losing himself in a dream world, imagining all the things this boy must have at home, all the things he probably has accomplished. Quickly, the bully has fallen in love with the new boy. At first sight, Push applies all his own dreams and desires, impossible in his own life for whatever reason, onto John Williams. He also hates the new boy for all the same reasons he loves him. It makes Push – previously portrayed as a simple, if quite clever and funny, thug – a much more complex and sympathetic character.
The whole section reminds me of The Kinks’ classic single, “David Watts,” another mid-60s work of art that honors the hero of the school with equal parts worship and bitterness. And that’s quite a trick on Elkin’s part.
He was tall, tall, even sitting down. His long legs comfortable in expensive wool, the trousers of a boy who had been on ships, jets; who owned a horse, perhaps; who knew Latin – what didn’t he know? – somebody made up, like a kid in a play with a beautiful mother and a handsome father; who took his breakfast from a sideboard, and picked, even at fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, his mail from a silver plate. He would have hobbies – stamps, stars, things looking lovely dead. He wore a sport coat, brown as wood, thick as heavy bark. The buttons were leather buds. His shoes seemed carved from horses’ saddles, gunstocks. His clothes had once grown in nature. What it must feel like inside those clothes, I thought.