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....
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