Meet Matt Duffy, the protagonist of Michael Adelberg’s novel Thinking Man’s Bully. His son, Jack, is getting into trouble for bullying his peers. Jack has also attempted suicide after Matt thwarted a teen-age romance. Things are not going well for Matt and his wife encourages him to see a psychiatrist. Matt is not crazy about the idea but thinks maybe getting some type of therapy will help him deal with his problematic, troubled son. What doesn’t expect that seeing a shrink will force him to confront the own harsh reality of his past and how it has impacted his somewhat less than ideal child-rearing practices.
Matt’s therapist expects him to do much more than lie on his couch and talk. No, instead, she expects him to email her stories before each session discussing his past and how it may have led to this moment in his life. She also thinks that may also help Matt discuss his feelings and emotions that he might have too much difficulty discussing face-to-face.
Through these emails we learn about some very disturbing, yet relatable details of Matt’s past. Like many teenagers, Matt hung out with his friends, tried to survive high school, navigated the rocky terrain of teenage romance and indulged in the pop culture of the day (personally, as a card carrying member of Generation X-er, I loved the book’s references to the music, movies and television of the 1980s).
But Matt soon realizes that maybe Jack’s bullying didn’t come from nowhere. Maybe the apple didn’t fall to far from the tree. As Matt examines his wayward youth he recognizes that he, too, spent a great deal of his teenage years bullying his classmates. Sure, a lot of it was because he was an immature jerk. But a great deal of Matt’s bullying was due to wanting to impress his BFF nicknamed Dog. Dog was the alpha male to Matt’s more beta male style, a leader who Matt was all too willing to follow.
Some of Matt and Dog’s adolescent shenanigans are just harmless pranks. But far too many of them were cruel and vicious and made my blood both curdle and boil. I can only imagine how their bullying of their peers would be worse in today’s age of social media.
As a teenager, Matt thinks his bullying makes him a cool guy and it makes him put Dog on a pedestal. But Dog has serious issues that go far beyond being the school bully and it isn’t long before these serious issues lead to dire consequences for Dog. And these consequences affect Matt long after the age of the mullet, acid-washed jeans and when MTV actually showed music videos.
Both these emails and Matt’s subsequent conversations with his therapist allow him to make a connection between his teen years and his experiences as a father. The connection isn’t easy, and makes Matt very uncomfortable. But he knows he has to go through this so he can deal with Jack and himself, and possibly grow up as a human being. Will Matt become the perfect father? Well, of course, not. But he is committed to helping his son by helping himself.
Being a victim of bullying myself (and sometimes being a bit of a bully at times), I expected to hate Matt Duffy. And at times I thought to myself, “What an asshole!” But I also saw Matt as a very real, complex and vulnerable person, filled with both good and bad qualities that are a part of the human condition. In the end, I felt empathy for Matt and his issues, both past and present.
Much of my empathy has to do with Adelberg’s rich and vivid writing style. Both of Matt’s emails relating the past and his present are written with such a three-dimensional clarity that had me drawn to Matt’s life. They also often made me think about my own misspent youth and how it is still affecting me today. You don’t always get this from a novel.
Thinking Man’s Bully is one book I had a difficult time putting down and was a bit bummed when it ended. Thank goodness Michael Adelberg is a prolific writer. If Thinking Man’s Bully is any indication of Adelberg’s writing talents, I’m definitely going to read his other books.