From the traditional schoolyard variety to their online cyber-cousins, bullies have been the focus of much national debate over the last few years. Gone are the days of turning a “kids-will-be-kids” blind eye to the issue; now, responses to bullying run the gamut from zero-tolerance school policies to efforts at understanding what makes bullies tick. Falling somewhere on the latter end of the spectrum is Michael Adelberg’s honest, moving debut novel, A Thinking Man’s Bully.
In many ways, the novel draws easy parallels to television shows like The Sopranos and In Treatment, particularly in terms of Adelberg’s storytelling. Echoing the back-and-forth banter between Tony Soprano and his therapist Jennifer Melfi, the novel consists of a series of fictive essays in which narrator Matt Duffy attempts to work through some of his “issues” with his therapist/interlocutor Lisa Moscovitz. Indeed, Duffy is so aware of his television counterpart that he can’t help underscoring many of their similarities himself: they’re both from New Jersey, they’re both fairly overbearing, and neither has much faith in the therapeutic process. Over time, however Duffy comes to piece together the elements of his life that have led him into therapy — most notably the suicide of a friend many years earlier and the suicide attempt of Duffy’s son.
What drives Duffy into therapy is a deceptively simple question: Is there something about his personality that drives the people he loves to suicide? Or, to put it more bluntly, is he responsible? What emerges over the course of his therapy sessions is a much more nuanced answer than these questions might, at first glance, engender. Early entries initially come off as one-shot stories about the friends that populated Duffy’s childhood, but as the novel progresses, the narrator starts to see the big picture and recognize patterns not just in his own behavior but in the behavior of his son. The apple, it turns out, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
While the comparison to The Sopranos is easy to see, I was also struck by the structural similarity between A Thinking Man’s Bully and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales — albeit with a slight twist. Where Chaucer depicted a range of characters who each trotted out a basic premise and then told a story to illustrate that premise, Adelberg reverses the formula by having his narrator tell a story and then explore its implications as he visits with his therapist. The effect of this pattern is to allow the reader an added angle into Duffy’s psyche; in addition to watching him dredge up memories old and new, we also see him gain a stronger sense of self-awareness. Ultimately, it’s the narrator’s gradual evolution that makes the novel so compelling.
The material in A Thinking Man’s Bully is certainly heavy, but it’s leavened with deadpan humor and wry observations that make for a highly engaging, bittersweet read, not unlike paging through an old yearbook or a family photo album. Additionally, Adelberg’s straightforward prose works the minor miracle of balancing bluntness and nuance as he examines difficult and complex issues throughout the proceedings. All told, A Thinking Man’s Bully is a superb debut.
– Review by Marc Schuster