Friday, November 25, 2016

"A Poetics for Bullies" (1964)

Story by Stanley Elkin not available online.

Stanley Elkin might appear to be 50 years or more ahead of our current preoccupations with bullying. But I'm not so sure. The first-person narrator is named Push, and he is a self-declared bully. He contrasts himself with bullies who beat up their victims, claiming they are more "athletes" than bullies. His style is mocking and tormenting through trickery, and he throws out a handful of his favorites at one point, most of which I happen to remember well from growing up, usually on the receiving end: making a match burn twice, the Gestapo joke, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Hard. That's all good, and Push often reminded me uncomfortably of people I have known—even been. Then into this fiefdom one day comes a tall and patrician boy named John Williams, who is unafraid of Push. In turn, that makes Push a little afraid of him, or something. This is our central conflict, and I thought it was weak after how vividly Push had introduced himself. Williams is a world traveler, and probably rich. He has many fascinating stories to tell. All the kids love him, and his behavior helps to make them less afraid of Push. In turn, Push becomes even more intimidated by Williams. I didn't like this turn in the story—it turns it into a type of practical moral illustration. Push is a coward even though he denies it specifically early on, attacking the idea that all bullies are cowards. Yet in the end he is plainly a coward. I do agree with the cliché all bullies are cowards, but that's beside the point. I don't need to have it diagrammed for me. Besides, Push is more of a winning character than repulsive. He's charming, funny, well spoken. He's a bully but somehow that's forgivable. Maybe he doesn't seem so bad, or maybe it's the radiance of his self-awareness. Williams somehow has supernatural powers to intimidate Push, but we have to accept it as a given. We don't feel his powers much, though he does tell interesting stories and is somehow ingratiating. But that's not enough. From perfect self-awareness to almost no self-awareness is an unexplained sea change for Push in this short story. I don't believe it, and I don't think I understand the point. I like Push but I don't mind seeing a bully lose, so I think my stubborn loyalty to him suggests Elkin might be hedging his bets on making Push so bad. He's more like rapscallion, and that keeps him sympathetic enough, and that's what I don't get. Please don't tell me this is about bullies being redeemable. Next you'll be talking about racism against whites.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks


  1. That bullies are all cowards cliche doesn't seem very illuminating ab modern bullydom anyway. It is interesting to consider, however, how in making the charming rapscallion, plucky, player, punk, bully upstart redeemable might serve to excuse submission to the allure of the strongman authoritarian (however petty) bully, tyrant, and/or abuser? They like him, the bully, b/c he 'tells it like it is,' he speaks for their non-pc resentments, their sense that everything is rigged against them, they respond to his call for immediate, decisive, exclusionary, even violent if necessary, action.

  2. Hi Jeff,

    Poetics is the art of writing poetry, or the study of linguistic techniques in poetry and literature. This short story is a study of techniques used in bullying, of the elements that make up bullies.

    Bullies are cowards because instead of confronting the problems within themselves, they choose to confront the world around them instead. Ironically, this can lead bullies to be fairly high-achieving in their fields.

    Push is always almost perfectly self-aware. When he first sees John Williams (the prince) he's apprehensive about bullying him, and changes his mind about using the match burning twice trick. He's apprehensive because John Williams has no flaws, and as Push states, he can only mock flaws. He thinks that a person without flaws cannot be bullied:

    He seemed puzzled. Then he looked sad, disappointed. No one said anything.
    "It don't sound the same," Eugene whispered.
    It was true. I sounded nothing like him. I could imitate only defects, only flaws.

    It's important to note here that John Williams feels pity for Push.

    Later in the story he passes over Frank the fat boy and doesn't make fun of him. Frank feels relieved, but also guilty about this. Why?

    Even though it can be shameful to have your flaws pointed out, it can also be a relief. So many times in life when someone has a very serious flaw, the people around them can go to great lengths to avoid calling attention to it, and often this avoidance of the flaw can feel like avoidance of the person. What Push gives these flawed children is his careful and full attention - his taunts are customized to each individual. He knows where they live, what they like. While other people avoid them, Push seeks them out because their weakness makes him feel better.

    Anyways, the fact that John Williams has no flaws starts to drive Push up the wall. Push is intimidated by John Williams because he can't find a way to bully him.

    John Williams is the foil, opposite of Push. He gives attention to all of the flawed children in the story, but instead of using their flaws against them to build himself up, he tries to remedy those flaws. He doesn't need to tear anyone down, because he's strong and self-confident.

    John Williams sees the flaws in Push - the insecurity, the anger, the hate, and because he's John Williams, he decides to help Push. He comes to Push's house and asks to help him. It takes Push a second, but he finally realizes what John Williams flaw is - he needs to help everyone, be friends with them, to improve them, to make them more confident. More like John Williams.

    All Push has to do to bully John Williams is to refuse his friendship, to refuse his help, to remain bitter, lonely, insecure, hateful. He decides to fight John Williams in front of everyone to make sure everyone knows that John has failed to help him, failed to make friends with him. It doesn't matter that John Williams will always win in a physical fight with Push - John will have lost the fight for Push's heart and mind.

    Push is likable because he's clever, funny, smart, uncompromising, and because he is the underdog. He wants to be better than everyone, and he accomplishes this by tearing other people down. He is relatable. He is the bully in all of us.

    John Williams is not relatable. The reader finds John Williams to be annoying - he is a two dimensional character with no flaws. The reader wants him to lose. He is the paragon that doesn't exist, that we all strive to be but fail to be.

    Do you know anyone who prefers to be right to the point where they would lose a good friend? Who is so stubborn that they refuse help?

    Obviously, if you can't tell from this analysis, this is my favorite short story, and I'm a bully.

  3. Thanks for making the case -- good stuff.

  4. I just read this today and wondered if he found the "all men are created equal" line so beautiful because that meant he could bully people equally. No one was safe, not even "the cr*pples." I don't think the point is that he is redeemable. However, when he said, "But I'm alone in my envy, awash in my lust," perhaps it was a clue that his lust wasn't for blood with John Williams. It seems to me Push was just as enamoured with him as everyone else, and that's what he hated the most. To me, that's what he was pushing away, the realisation of his own feelings.

  5. Promise not to say anything more ab this before I can confirm I've actually read it or only your review. But at any rate, curious reactions.