A Poetics for Bullies Summary
by Stanley Elkin

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A Poetics for Bullies Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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. Tall, blond, and handsome, the well-traveled and well-dressed Williams cuts a princely figure. A version of the main character in the slightly earlier “On a Field Rampant,” Williams is a “paragon” of virtue and Christlike lover of all, including those defectives whom Push loves to hate. He puts Frank on a diet and Slud in the gym, and he even tries to befriend Push, who has always tried to live his life so that he “could keep the lamb from the door.”

Push decides to fight Williams, “not to preserve honor but its opposite.” Willing to risk the pain he has always avoided, he is determined that his nemesis will not turn the other cheek. In this, Push claims, he is only following natural law: “Push pushed pushes.” Push succeeds; Williams strikes back, only to then extend his hand in friendship. “Hurrah!” cry the others, like the chorus of children at the end of Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912). After a moment’s hesitation, however, Push rejects all offers and pleadings; he chooses instead to follow his own inexorable self rather than adapt and submit: “Logic is nothing. Desire is stronger.” Bully in no ordinary sense, Push is the “incarnation of envy and jealousy and need,” ready to “die wanting,” possessing nothing more and nothing less than “the cabala of my hate, my irreconcilableness.”


(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...

(The entire section is 1,298 words.)