Study Guide

A Poetics for Bullies

by Stanley Elkin

A Poetics for Bullies Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Of the nine stories in Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, “A Poetics for Bullies” was the last to be written and the one Elkin liked best. The story marks Elkin’s breakthrough from his earlier, more realistic, and generally more sedate style to the approach that characterizes his later work. The story’s young protagonist-narrator is the unlovable but irrepressible Push the Bully. Push imposes his perverse will and vision on others, all of them, like Push, grotesques: Eugene, with his overactive salivary glands, fat Frank, Mim the dummy, Slud the cripple, Clob the ugly. A trickster as much by compulsion as by choice, Push claims that were magic real, he would use it to change the world, but because it is not real, he spends his time asserting himself and disillusioning others. Although this “prophet of the deaf” seems in many ways a younger version of one of Saul Bellow’s “reality instructors,” he also resembles the typical Bellow hero, Eugene Henderson, for example, in Henderson the Rain King (1959), whose clamorous “I want, I want” is Push’s own. “Alone in my envy, awash in my lust,” Push feels forever the outsider, though not in any clearly existential sense; he is more the perennial new kid on the block than the absurdist antihero of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.

As if to prove Push right, an actual new kid, John Williams, immediately gains the acceptance that Push both desires and despises....

(The entire section is 471 words.)

A Poetics for Bullies Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrator, a brash schoolboy who calls himself “Push the bully,” reveals whom he hates (“new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off”) and what he likes, such as the specific ways he torments his victims. One day the obsequious Eugene Kraft, who suffers from a glandular disorder that makes him drool, comes to tell Push about a new boy in the neighborhood. Push has bullied Kraft into continually drinking water, and now forces him to swallow directly from the kitchen faucet. When Kraft meekly complains that the water is hot, Push assures him, with specious logic, that hot water evaporates better. After he makes Kraft gulp and stammer through his report, Push goes to confront the new boy, John Williams, whom Kraft characterizes as a kid-and-a-half.

In contrast to Push and the other local boys—Kraft, Mimmer, Slud, Clob, and Frank—John Williams does not suffer any physical, intellectual, or moral disability. Worldly, educated, self-confident, charitable, handsome, and athletic, he possesses no visible defects, seeming, in name as well as nature, to belong to a higher social order. Unlike the others, he is immune to Push’s bullying.

Capable only of understanding the world as a place of imperfections, in which defect confers identity, Push is helpless to grasp the possibility of a flawless person. At Williams’s home, Push’s agitated efforts at bullying are easily negated by Williams’s litany of care and concern for a man who is in pain, an old woman, a worried husband, and a wife in despair. Empathy and concern are foreign to Push; he winces and accuses Williams of being a lover and a bully.

During the days that follow, Push watches helplessly as Williams takes root at school, earning the admiration of his new classmates as well as the teachers and administrators. To the boys Push has bullied, Williams becomes a hero. He patiently reviews lessons with Mimmer, the “dummy”; he visits the gym with Slud, the...

(The entire section is 827 words.)