Friday, November 25, 2016
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