“One day this kid will get larger,” begins the text on David Wojnarowicz’s well-known Untitled (One Day This Kid…), which came into larger public consciousness as a benefit print for the anti-bullying It Gets Better Project. With a central photograph of Wojnarowicz as a child surrounded by text, the piece documents the physical and emotional violence aimed at same-sex desire. The text continues, “One day this kid will begin to experience all this activity in his environment and that activity and information will compel him to commit suicide or submit to danger in hopes of being murdered or submit to silence or invisibility. Or one day this kid will talk….”
Since the creation of Wojnarowicz’s piece in 1990 and later, the founding of the It Gets Better Project in 2010, bullying has exploded in America. Bullying has become the de facto buzzword of our time from the cyberbullying, Pepe the Frog-posting alt-right trolls to the furious meatheads at Trump rallies to Trump himself, who rose to power through taunting reporters with disabilities, grabbing pussies, mocking immigrants and making up bizarrely insulting nicknames for his opponents. As president, Trump continues to be a bully, recently retweeting a meme in which it appears he’s hitting a Hillary Clinton look-alike with a golf ball. Mature.
Naturally, this culture of violence trickles from the top down. Despite Melania Trump’s plans to condemn bullying at the U.N. today, Donald Trump’s rhetoric has given both adults and children the green light to unleash their id. In July, Buzzfeed News reported 81 incidents in schools in which “white students across the country used the president’s words and slogans to bully Latino, Middle Eastern, black, Asian, and Jewish classmates in the first school year of the Trump presidency.” And presumably, those numbers have only risen since.
It’s within this context of countrywide bullying that writer Ed Hamilton releases his novel Lords Of The Schoolyard, which was published last week. Hamilton addresses this widespread bullying, but he does so with a twist–Lords of the Schoolyard is written through the eyes of the bully rather than the bullied. The novel follows the narrator–Tommy Donaldson, a juvenile delinquent whose perpetual misbehavior with his best friend Johnny almost reaches the level of John Waters-esque “crime enhances beauty” excess. By focusing on Tommy, Hamilton subtly traces the systemic nature of bullying, violence and victimization. While both Tommy and Johnny are awful to their classmates, the world around them is equally violent. Hamilton shows how the blame placed on one or a couple bad kids is an oversimplification of the problem–their behavior is derived directly from the environment that surrounds them at home and at school.
Hamilton is previously known for his two books Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, which documents his life at the famed (and increasingly luxury) Chelsea Hotel, and his collection of fictional short stories, The Chintz Age, which similarly focuses on the ever-changing nature of gentrifying New York. Lords of the Schoolyard isn’t just Hamilton’s first novel, it’s his first book that isn’t set in New York City. In contrast, the novel is located in an almost stereotypically nostalgic mid-20th century suburb. This works to make Tommy’s story more universal–it cannot be brushed off as a singular story, but one that pervades America.
The novel opens with Tommy and Johnny torturing a dorkier kid named Chip at their football practice near his Catholic school Mother of Good Council or, as it is referred by the kids, “Mother Goose.” “There was a kid named Chip on our football team. He was just a scrawny little kid, uncoordinated and not very strong. I don’t know why he played football. He never got into the game, not until the final seconds, and then only if we were ahead by fifty points or so. Maybe his dad made him play. That was the reason I played, because my dad made me play,” Hamilton writes (3).
With the references to the similarities between Chip and Tommy’s familial motivations for playing, Hamilton introduces his main critique: that the division between the bullied and bullies is closer than we expect. As Hamilton continues, through the perspective of Tommy: “We may have been outcasts, me and Johnny, but we never took it lying down. We took it out on others instead” (4).
This doesn’t mean we’re meant to feel bad for Tommy or Johnny as they terrorize their entire community by torturing classmates, tossing dead squirrels on cars, mocking old ladies, getting drunk, stealing weed and more. They are undeniable and unapologetic shitheads, even though some of these scenes are hilarious, particularly Tommy and Johnny’s short-lived foray with the Hare Krishnas. “Since our experiment with eastern religion didn’t pan out, we were back to the point we started from, still looking for a way forward. Perhaps we were best suited for a life of crime. All indications seemed to point that way,” Tommy reflects.
The novel particularly shines when Hamilton shows, time and time again, that Tommy’s bullying nature doesn’t come from nowhere. For example, in the second chapter, Tommy recalls how he joined football to impress his former pro dad. In one scene, Tommy fumbles a major play in a game that his father was coaching and endures major humiliation at the hands of both his dad and the other kids, mirroring his taunting of Chip. Celebrating a good year even though they lost the game, Tommy’s father asks to be hoisted up by the team and, as Tommy remembers: “In the middle of all the excitement, I looked up at my father and he looked down at me. And then he reached down and grabbed my face mask. The helmet came off easily in his hand. He held it for a moment, and then he dropped it into the crowd. Reflexively, I bent to retrieve it, but it was kicked out of my grasp and I was shoved from behind. I went after it again, but it was kicked again, and I was shoved again. The other players kicked my helmet all around, as I stupidly chased after it. Finally, just as I had the helmet in my hand, somebody crashed into me and I fell, sprawling out face first as the rest of the team surged over me, trampling me, stomping on my legs, my arms, and my fingers with their cleats” (13).
This kind of bullying behavior, as the novel deftly portrays, is inherited. But, it’s not only Tommy’s family that is beset by violence. In his Catholic school, Tommy’s punishment often comes in the form of that Catholic cliché–the wooden paddle. Making a hysterically lewd book called The Sex Book, mocking the teachers at his school, Tommy gets physically punished by the teachers, nuns and a priest. Taken into the bathroom with six or seven teachers, Tommy reveals, “It was a big paddle and it hurt like hell. But I was no sissy. I knew what they wanted. They wanted me to cry and I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction” (41). Bringing in Father Hood as the closer, Tommy continues, “It was a severe beating and my ass was bruised and sore. The teachers filed out of the bathroom, and gave me a bit of privacy to pull up my pants and wash the tears from my face. As it turned out, they didn’t tell my parents after all. And they knew I wouldn’t tell either. We all understood the value of secrecy. I pushed the episode to the back of my mind and struggled not to let it bother me” (43).
While the novel is set in the halcyon days of the mid-20th century, the novel is undeniably timely as a microcosm of the culture of bullying that is currently sweeping America, particularly on the Internet. In Angela Nagle’s study of the rise of online cyberbullying, Tumblr trigger policing and the alt-right, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, she observes, “this leaderless anonymous online culture ended up becoming characterized by a particularly dark preoccupation with thwarted or failed white Western masculinity as a grand metaphor.”
In Lords of the Schoolyard, Tommy, too, seems obsessed with failed masculinity, whether taunting and even threatening girls that reject him (“Girls confused me. I was afraid of them. So naturally I was mad at girls and wanted to punish them”) or idolizing older, stronger kids. For example, Tommy begins to look up to and hang out with an older brute kid in the neighborhood Harold. “I admired them. Their strength was a strength I could aspire to, unlike my father’s, which seemed out of reach,” (83) says Tommy.
While the book concludes with perhaps a gesture toward Tommy finally growing up and out of his bullying impulses, Lords of the Schoolyard succeeds at showcasing the infectious nature of bullying and the obsession with toxic masculinity as a systemic rather than singular problem. Bullying, in both the world of the novel and our world at large, is a sanctioned form of policing difference from Tommy picking on the fey kid Freddie at school to Trump mocking, well, anyone who isn’t a straight white man. As Hamilton writes about the permissiveness of the teachers in regards to Tommy’s bullying: “We were doing part of their job for them, after all, by showing that difference and weakness were prohibited. We were the classroom clops, the Law of the Schoolyard. And besides that, the teachers are only human. They would rather identity with the strong than the weak” (25). And perhaps, as Hamilton seems to suggest in the novel, the only way to deal with bullying, whether from Trump or from bad kids in school, is by taking aim at this system.