Skip to main content
book review

iStockphoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Apart from beating up your own dad, I'd wager that exacting brutal, pummelling revenge on your old grade-school bully is the consummate fantasy of male violence.

They say living well is the best revenge. But where does that leave good ol' revenge? Sure, securing a better job and a life wealthy in wisdom and experience is one way of showing the guys who used to torment you as a kid. But what about showing up to the local bar during the annual Christmas pub crawl, narrowing your gaze at one of the callous thugs who used to hurl homophobic slurs at you because you dared to be openly enthusiastic about Star Trek, stalking over to him, pulling his sweatshirt over his head like a hockey goon and laying a flurry of uppercuts into his big, dumb head, while everyone in the vicinity stands slack-jawed and bug-eyed, absolutely unable to register what they're seeing? Wouldn't that be, like, the best?

Writer Alex Abramovich had the rare chance to confront his childhood bully, mano a mano, in a beat-up, drag-down boxing match. And he passed it up.

In 2006, Abramovich started thinking about Trevor, the elementary-school kid who used to beat him up. So he looked him up. Turned out Trevor was running a motorcycle club, The East Bay Rats, based out of Oakland, Calif. "To me, this made perfect sense," Abramovich writes. "My grade-school nemesis had become a professional bully."

Part of the Rats' whole shtick were fight nights that saw willing participants squaring off in an ad hoc boxing ring, to delight of the beer-boozy crowds huddled around them. It was all part of what Abramovich came to regard as a structural culture of violence in the club. "With the Rats," he writes, "violence was systematic and systemized from the get-go."

Pop-anthropological observations on relationship between violence and masculinity notwithstanding, Abramovich saw a chance to settle the score. And so, with a little encouragement from his friends he set out from Queens, N.Y. to Oakland, to live the fantasy of fighting his bully. But then a weird thing happened: Abramovich and Trevor became friends.

Time heals all wounds, is another thing they say. But in this instance, it wasn't exactly the case. When Abramovich met Trevor as an adult, he was forced to confront his own memories. His old bully recalled their relationship as more of a game to-and-fro. Instead of Abramovich being the victim, the tortured, bookish kid, Trevor recalled them bullying each other. "Perhaps the difference between us," Abramovich writes, "wasn't that he'd been the bully and I'd been the victim of his bullying; perhaps it was that I'd done my best to forget all the fights I'd been in, while Trevor tried to remember them all."

Unable to reconcile these different accounts of their shared past, the two men call off the fight. Before long, Abramovich moves to Oakland and installs himself inside Trevor's motorcycle club. The members refer to him as an "embedded" reporter, as if he's a war correspondent. Abramovich, however, seems to regard himself as more "a sort of unofficial historian-in-residence."

It's in this capacity that Abramovich, and his book, suffer. Bullies is at its best when it's interrogating the relationship between violence, masculinity and memory, as triangulated in the book's early chapters. From there, the book meanders, its narrative zig-zagging around to cover the history of Oakland, a high-profile murder case, the Occupy movement, gentrification, the history of motorcycle clubs and the relationship between the military and the counterculture. Abramovich feels less like a historian than a roving journalist-itinerant collecting experiences, then barely wrenching them into his book.

In trying to account for so many historical movements and ideas, Bullies ends up a disappointingly circumspect account of the relationship between violence, disenfranchisement and the all-caps idea of AMERICA. At one point Abramovich notes that Trevor seems drawn toward violence, "as if by some internal, instinctual device."

Yet, there's no accounting for what, exactly, this device is. Is it a function of Trevor's rearing? His biology? His constitution? The mitigating influences of American culture? All of the above? It's not even that Abramovich doesn't have an answer to such an admittedly heady question. It's that he doesn't even really venture a guess. Instead of analyzing the system of violence, Abramovich only glances at the results of that system, like a war historian who only accounts for battlefield casualties but not the motive causes of the battle itself.

Despite Abramovich's heavyweight pretensions, Bullies feels slight, even a bit trivializing of its subjects. It speaks less to Abramovich's talents – indeed, his writing is lively, and he possesses and instinctive sense for character and narrative – than the state of non-fiction publishing, where eager publishers pour over a cracking magazine feature and frantically dial up the writer's agent, offering a big, fat book deal. The appeal of such offers is obvious, even if it results in authors stretching good ideas too thin.

Imagine it: a high-profile book tour, national media attention? That's the sort of exposure that really shows all the old grade-school bullies who won.