Books In Conversation
Secret Societies from Bohemians to Bullies—ED HAMILTON with Elizabeth Smith
Ed Hamilton’s debut novel, Lords of the Schoolyard (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2017), is an unflinching depiction of bullying in suburban America. Though set in a southern town in the 1970s, the generic suburbia depicted in Lords of the Schoolyard could exist anywhere, at any time, in the U.S.A. For, as Hamilton shows, it’s this very suburban culture—rife with alienation, boredom, and depression, but also with a certain kind of freedom—that is so conducive to random acts of violence. With surgical precision, Hamilton skewers the tired platitudes of sports and religion that are offered up as ineffectual balms for the raw wounds this culture inflicts on its children.
Stark, brutal, at times darkly humorous, Hamilton’s story is told from the head bully Tommy’s savagely witty point of view. The effect is exquisitely uncomfortable, even shocking, and captures with unforgettable force the casual cruelty of the adolescent mind, as well as the fundamental, sorrowful human innocence that lies beneath it. This harrowing immersion into the inner reality of a little boy who chooses victimization over victimhood casts an all-too-timely light on contemporary society in the era of Trump and the alt-right.
Elizabeth Smith (Rail): Ed, you and I first met when we read chapters of our respective in-progress novels at a dive bar in Brooklyn (long since closed). I remember being horrified as you read “The Jockstrap” (chapter 1)—horrified that this very kind and warm person I had just shaken hands with was describing mean-spirited cruelty in such vivid detail. And horrified that I was fascinated by it! Perhaps like many in the audience in the bar that night, I have the psychic scars of school-age bullying, so I wasn’t expecting to be so intrigued by that little punk, Tommy. Years later, after following your blog about the Chelsea Hotel and reading your story collections Legends of the Chelsea Hotel and The Chintz Age, I finally discovered how this punk turned out.
Ed Hamilton: I read at a lot of dive bars in those days, and I was always running into you. If I remember correctly, the bar where we met and read together for the first time was some kind of heavy metal bar that had been repurposed temporarily for a literary reading. I thought it was weird at the time, and felt a little bit out of place, though upon reflection, it seems entirely appropriate, as readers and writers in our post-literate society are even bigger outcasts than heavy metal fans! And perhaps it’s the right venue for a story about bullies as well; as Tommy, the main character of Lords of the Schoolyard proudly proclaims: “We may have been outcasts, me and Johnny, but we never took it lying down. Instead, we took it out on others. Together, we were a machine of destruction.”
In the selection you heard that night, Tommy is introduced on the sidelines of a football field, slinging a weaker boy around by the face mask, so your horror is understandable, and in a sense what I intended. By creating a character that is initially such a bastard, I set a challenge for myself to make him sympathetic, and for the reader to empathize with him. Tommy does as he pleases, traipsing through life and having a damn good time of it, blithely unaware of the feelings of other people, and I like to think I’ve made it a sort of guilty pleasure to identify with the little jerk at the heart of the novel.
Rail: Unlike many current books about bullying, Lords of the Schoolyard keeps a tight focus on the perpetrator, not the victims. Tommy’s unapologetic. He’s unrepentant. He doesn’t receive a typical comeuppance that opens his eyes, etc., etc. His adolescent coming of age is drawn through a haze of alcohol and pot, punctuated by bursts of violence and fumbling sex. I am still horrified by Tommy, but now I get where he and his best friend, Johnny, are coming from. You set this novel aside as you wrote about the denizens of the Chelsea Hotel and the lives of New Yorkers at the turn of a millennium—yet I have a feeling you were always writing about secret lives. What about a bully’s secret life drew you at first, and then again now?
Hamilton: It’s interesting that you mention “secret lives”, as Tommy and Johnny, the bullies at the heart of Lords, do seem to exist in an insular world of their own device, walled off from adults (and even from most of the other kids), who scarcely ever intrude. I think part of the reason I did this was to highlight their friendship, which is the most important thing in their world—and one of the few good things, which is why Tommy struggles so desperately to hold onto it, even as Johnny wants to move on. When I was talking with a grade school teacher recently, he brought up the notion of a “shadow society” among kids, with its own rules, standards, values, and language, and from which adults are excluded. This immediately reminded me of the infamous “Trench Coat Mafia” at Columbine High School. Like Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers, Tommy and Johnny belong to a secret society of two that insulates them from the larger society which they feel unable to negotiate. (There are lots of differences between the two pairs of boys, including the fact that Eric and Dylan where probably victims of bullying themselves, but the similarities are striking as well.) For Tommy and Johnny their friendship becomes so central and all encompassing that it leads them to dehumanize others.
As for the relation to my first two books: the Chelsea Hotel of Legends of the Chelsea Hotel is a world unto itself, a secret society for sure—or a whole bunch of them, for who knows what’s hidden behind that weirdly painted door at the end of that dark, forbidding corridor? It’s a place where different rules apply and where deviance is a badge of honor. Creativity is valued above all, as artists, writers and musicians are the stars. And even junkies and schizophrenics rank higher than lawyers and stock brokers—though anybody with money is certainly tolerated by the starving artists, that’s for sure! And regarding the characters in The Chintz Age, their comfortable subcultures are collapsing as the city gentrifies, they’re being evicted from their apartments and shops, and they’re struggling to carve out a niche for themselves where they can remain relevant (or at least remain in New York) as they ride out the onrushing societal juggernaut.
Rail: While Tommy’s teenage cruelty seems capricious, he has a code of honor—broken by convenience or warped by a sense of entitlement but still there. Don’t steal someone’s weed (unless they deserve it). Don’t hit girls (unless they’re asking for it). This code is deeply enmeshed in Johnny and Tommy’s relationship, like when after a late-night party, Johnny gets loudly, obnoxiously, dangerously drunk. Tommy, who prides himself on his self-control, is disgusted. Yet when Johnny passes out in the middle of nowhere, Tommy stays with him—no question about it. This code is obviously integral to your novel, but he and his friend also screw each other over quite a bit (like when Tommy ruins his friend’s chances with a girl, Brenda, just to mess with him). As a writer, what was it like trying to resolve the push-pull of this central relationship? Or do you feel it ever did get resolved?
Hamilton: The central theme of Lords of the Schoolyard is the friendship between Tommy and Johnny, the bullies at the heart of the novel, and how this friendship is challenged as the two boys enter adolescence and discover girls and alcohol. The boys follow their own unstated moral code, kind of an outlaw’s code of honor that involves being tough and never backing down from a fight, the rejection of adult authority, disdain for schoolwork, etc. Tommy, especially, is quite insistent on this code, and expects everyone else (or at least all kids) to understand and follow it as well. He ruthlessly enforces its prohibition against squealing, for instance, even when it would be better to let the matter drop. In the early pages Johnny supports him wholeheartedly: when a fellow student rats them out for smoking in the school bathroom, they threaten and intimidate him together, ultimately forcing him to snatch the veil from a nun and attempt to throw it into a tree. Part of Tommy’s disillusionment, toward the end of the book, is his dawning realization that Johnny doesn’t really get where he’s coming from on this issue (and many others as well), and perhaps never has.
The push-pull of the relationship between the boys is certainly a big part of what drives the book forward: the boys are competitive amongst themselves, and first one is on top, but then the other is always determined to get his friend back. Tommy gets jealous when it seems that Johnny is about to get a girlfriend, and does his best to ruin his friend’s chances; later, Johnny is able to return the favor. And, without giving too much away, I think the conflict between the two boys does get resolved, albeit in a rather unusual manner that centers around their outlaw code of honor, chipping away at it and then ultimately subverting it, revealing it as hollow.
Rail: Tommy goes to Mass loaded a lot—clearly he’s not looking for direction from Jesus, Mary, or God. But you also show him drawn to Krishna devotees and his hippie cousin, who rejects the hypocrisy of society. He is able to grudgingly admit to a concerned nun that no, Jesus would not like what he is doing to younger students. He didn’t get direction from the usual moral authorities—parents, religious leaders, teachers. He didn’t get it from the people he actually respects—those with power like the local drug dealer and the friend who has a (somewhat) working car. As Tommy figures out his life, he moves through a varied cast of potential influencers, young and old. Who had an impact on you growing up, positive or negative? Did they appear in Tommy’s narrative?
Hamilton: When, early on in the novel, Tommy and Bobby go to mass drunk (the first time either of them have actually been drunk) and sit in the deserted choir loft, talking and cutting up as a funny-looking man strums his guitar and the people sing “Kumbaya”, the boys seem open to something almost resembling a traditional Christian spiritual experience. However, as the mass winds down and cruel sobriety sets in, they look over the railing at the hypocrites gathered below and have to suppress the urge to spit on them. It had been the liquor all along, and it’s to drink and drugs that the boys turn increasingly to help assuage the pains of adolescence.
The Catholic church has been enmeshed in an abuse scandal for quite some time now, and instead of going away, it just seems to keep getting worse and worse. Having attended Catholic schools for twelve years in the sixties and seventies, I realize that this sort of thing must have been going on all around me at the time—a situation that strikes me as incredibly surreal. Like most people, I had no idea, though looking back, some of the signs become clear. In a flashback to an earlier stage in his development, Tommy (in an incident that reflects something that actually happened to me) is severely whipped and humiliated by a priest after he circulates a book of nude drawings among his classmates. In ways such as this—less extreme than sexual abuse, but still, I must say, pretty damn extreme—the Catholic church molds and warps young children’s developing sexuality.
Anyway, to get back to the novel, it’s incidents such at this that help condition Tommy’s subsequent violent, bullying behavior. Despite the official condemnation of their actions, there seems to be a recognized place for Tommy and Johnny in the school hierarchy, as in society in general. The nuns and priests at the boys’ Catholic school generally look the other way when the two boys pick on weaker kids, because the bullying makes their job of enforcing conformity and suppressing dissent that much easier. The boys understand this, and revel in their role as “cops of the classroom, the law of the schoolyard.”
Growing up, I was like Tommy and Johnny, idolizing big, tough men like my father and the football coach, and just as quickly coming to suspect that I would never live up to their standards of masculinity. Perhaps there were writers and artists around when I was growing up, but I wasn’t taken to art shows or poetry readings or any sort of cultural events, so I never made their acquaintance. So instead I looked up to older juvenile delinquents, in the same way that Tommy looks up to Harold, who has a mustache and drives a car (often quite suicidally) in eighth grade, and who, in a signature bravura display of masculine virility, picks up a fast food waitress and fucks her in the back of his station wagon as Tommy and Johnny look on in awe. Harold, like most of the characters in Lords of the Schoolyard, is actually a composite character, based on a number of boys I knew growing up.
Rail: How our soaring principles crash into life is something you’ve long been exploring. You once described your poignant short-story collection The Chintz Age as having characters that “betray their ideals,” while in Lords of the Schoolyard, Tommy adamantly refuses to do so, even as he is beaten and spat on and grounded. In fact, Tommy keeps his harshest punishment for those who betray him—“ratting him out” is what sets him off the most, he declares. (He may be a bully but he has standards!) Do you find yourself empathizing more with those characters who have relinquished their dreams or this kid who won’t compromise, even if it’s in his best interest to do so?
Hamilton: My first book, Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, came out in 2007, just a few months after the hostile takeover of the Chelsea Hotel removed it from the control of the Bard family, who had run the hotel for sixty years, nurturing its bohemian vibe through the Beat years, the Warhol years, the punk years, and beyond. So my delight at the success of the book was tempered by the realization that the way of life it celebrated was ending, as dozens of my neighbors, most of them people in the arts, were being summarily evicted. My wife, Debbie, and I, together with a handful of other tenants, decided to fight to restore the Bards’ control (the struggle is chronicled on my blog, Living with Legends). We won a lot of battles, but, to make a long story short, we lost the war when the hotel was sold to a multi-national corporation in 2011.
This was a war that was winnable; I still believe that. What was needed was for more people to join the struggle. I felt that many artists, writers, musicians, and others in the arts—had betrayed the institution and the ideals that had sustained them and others like them over the years. That, for me, was heartbreaking. I came to realize that their reasons for doing so were varied, and I wanted to understand them, so I designed the stories in The Chintz Age as a way to explore this notion of betrayal. What do you do, for instance, when you’re facing eviction and have no money? What do you do when you realize that you’re never going to a famous artist? How do you react when the creative force inside you has dried up? Do you stick to your guns or try to cut a deal? I hoped above all to provide the bohemian characters of my stories with a way out—in other words, with redemption. But it was also to provide myself with redemption, as these eccentric denizens of the Chelsea Hotel were my friends, the people I identified with: their betrayal also seemed like my own betrayal.
As for Tommy in Lords of the Schoolyard, he has, as you say, his standards: his mischief is not just mindless violence and destruction; for him it’s an art form. There’s a method to his madness. Tommy’s pranks usually have a subtle, subversive irony—no matter that hardly anyone gets it but himself. Certainly, Tommy refuses to betray his ideals under compulsion, even preferring, he says at one point, to go down with the ship. But as he faces the challenges of growing up, his antics become more desperate, and they stop being so funny anymore, as even he loses track of the reasons for his rebellion. Still, I don’t think he’s entirely unrepentant. I think he does come to gradually realize the hollowness of some of his ideals on his own; maybe he’s not quite there by the end, but he is getting close. He realizes that Harold, an outlaw with an even more uncompromising code, goes way overboard in rebelling for its own sake. And it’s Tommy’s friendship with Johnny, that, even as it’s ending, somehow seems to be opening up the means for his escape. While holding onto the core of his beliefs, Tommy seeks redemption as well—though whether he finds this in the end remains open to interpretation.
Rail: I also grew up in a tidy suburban plan and keenly recall that stifling boredom, that stifling feeling of stagnation, that restlessness. Like Tommy, I was fascinated by the old houses still perched on the edge of the plans, boarded-up and vacant, forbidding yet promising some kicks and maybe a little profit. To me you’re such a quintessential New Yorker (maybe a little more patient than some). I can’t imagine you anywhere else—what’s your connection to the suburbs? Why were they important to have as the landscape to this book? As with your other books, you were steeped in New York City while writing them; how were you able to pull in a suburban world as you wrote and edited Lords of the Schoolyard?
Hamilton: It’s gratifying to hear that you think of me as a quintessential New Yorker. Whatever I’ve been doing to merit this perception, I’ll have to keep it up! Still, even though I’ve never felt more at home than I do in New York, I still can’t help thinking of myself as a transplanted suburbanite. I grew up in the standard nuclear family unit in the suburbs of Louisville, Kentucky. And though we did also spend a few years in the suburbs of Freehold, New Jersey, and a few other suburbs, the memories run together. One of the great tragedies of modern American life is that the suburbs are everywhere, and always the same.
Anyway, I hated the suburbs growing up, and so do Tommy and Bobby, for similar reasons: there’s never anything to do, since no stores or attractions of any sort are allowed; the streets are empty, and it’s mile after mile of identical houses, lawns and trees, so no visual stimulation either; and nobody knows any of their neighbors, which doesn’t matter since they’re all the same anyway, and not worth getting to know. But then, I guess the litany is familiar by now. In such a soul-destroying environment, is it any wonder that kids turn to sex—if they’re lucky—or drugs or violence if they’re not? Bizarrely, the adults who live there never seem to understand any of this, and are always totally mystified by the suffering and alienation of their offspring—then and now.
But we do seem to have reached a turning point of sorts. More and more young (and, actually, not so young) people are fleeing to the city, and, increasingly, it’s the very people that those of us who’ve been here for awhile moved here to escape! Now it’s not just the weird punks and outcasts who are moving here, but the jocks and cheerleaders as well. The East Village and the Lower East Side are like frat row anymore. They’re trying to turn the Chelsea Hotel into condos! And these newcomers don’t even really want to leave the suburbs anyway; instead, they’re dragging their 7-11s and Olive Gardens here with them. So now where do the weirdoes escape to?
I actually wrote Lords of the Schoolyard before my other two books (well, several drafts of it anyway). I was younger, and so presumably had more suburban baggage left to carry around. In Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, there’s actually a story about me sitting in my little SRO room in the Chelsea, drinking beer and writing some of the material that would eventually become Lords. When I go out into the hall to use the restroom, a crazy woman with black eye makeup chases me down the hall, screaming that her husband, the exterminator, is trying to poison her. Shades of William Burroughs, right? I managed to escape her that night, but at some point she must have caught up with me, because I stopped writing about the suburbs and started writing about the bohemian denizens of New York instead. When I finally found a publisher for Lords, I was able to approach the revision process in a more dispassionate manner than I would have been able to earlier.
Rail: And what timing! October is National Anti-Bullying Month, and Americans are living in dread of the next collective swirly given via 140-character tweet, thanks to a certain bully-in-chief. Your focus on a victimizer and not the victims is a gutsy one—what do you hope to bring to a growing national conversation?
Hamilton: Ever since Columbine in 1999, there has been an increasing interest in the subject of bullying. Lords of the Schoolyard was, in fact, originally called Bullies, and I wrote the first draft way back in 2002 (though, as I mention above, it’s based on even earlier stories). There was a lot of interest in the book back then, and I felt sure it was right on the verge of being published, but perhaps the world wasn’t ready, at that point, for a book told from the point of view of the bully. But I’m glad the book is coming out now, because the issue is certainly more pressing than ever. Not only do we have the bully Trump in the white house, but we have alt-right and white supremacist nuts toting assault rifles to demonstrations to intimidate peaceful protesters. I consider myself very fortunate to live in New York, where some semblance of sanity remains. (No wonder that all the suburbanites want to move here!)
In a way, however, what’s happening in our country is perfectly understandable: these alt-right wing-nuts are confused and disoriented by the ever-accelerating changes that are taking place in our world. In that respect, at least, they are much like kids entering puberty. Like Tommy and Johnny, they feel like victims, like they’ve been sold a false bill of goods, therefore they lash out. (And like the childhood bullies, they choose those they perceive as weakest as their victims: the climate scientists rather than the polluting corporations; the liberals rather than the rich, monied interests; the immigrants rather than the businesses that employ them.) I like to think that Tommy is left with a way out at the end of the novel, a way forward: he is starting to develop empathy, starting to realize that violence is not the answer, and starting to grow up. And maybe we need to reorganize our society—or at least seriously rethink things—in such a way that there’s also a way out, and a way back to respectability, for the tragically misguided people who have been seduced by this new neo-fascist ideology.
Rail: From a vanishing New York to a vanishing childhood, your writing evokes moments in time, preserving them, warts and all. You are a passionate advocate for the diversity and opportunities of New York City, through the support of local businesses, affordable housing, and historical preservation. How has this advocacy informed, challenged, and/or supported your experiences as a writer? And—I have to ask—what’s next after Lords of the Schoolyard?
Hamilton: I think one of the things that connects my three books is a strong sense of nostalgia, and the conviction that the past is important and needs to be preserved—at least until we have something better to replace it with. As the title of The Chintz Age indicates, we’re trashing the past only to replace it with something inferior. Consumer goods, to take only the most obvious example, are made of cheap materials meant to break in a few years. In the Chelsea Hotel, for instance, our porcelain sink was replaced by a plastic one that has now cracked; and the handles on the faucet are plastic-coated to look like chrome. The windows throughout the building, which had lasted for 130 years, were replaced with new ones that are already getting stuck or coming off their tracks. We’ve traded our old cities with their vibrant downtown centers for truck stops and strip malls. But part of the dynamic in The Chintz Age is the realization that there’s a difference between honoring the past and living in the past, and that, however painful, we do have to force ourselves to move on. Some of the criticism I heard with Legends of the Chelsea Hotel was that I was romanticizing, and even advocating a return to, a period of New York when you couldn’t step out of your apartment without being mugged by a junkie. Of course, nobody wants that, but that doesn’t mean we have to turn New York into a playground for the rich either. There has to be a middle ground. As for Lords of the Schoolyard, Tommy and Johnny both seek to move into the adult future, but they come into conflict when Tommy seems to hesitate, and to want to prolong his childhood for a while longer. “We were good at being kids,” Tommy says at one point. “Adulthood, who knew?” At fifteen, Tommy is already prey to nostalgia, longing for a return to a golden age that never actually existed.
As for moving forward myself, I have several writing projects that I’m working on at the moment. One of them is a sequel to Lords, concerning what happens to Tommy at the next stage of his development, that is, as a high school student. And of course, I’m working on staying in the Chelsea Hotel myself. Though it’s been ten years since the Bards were ousted, and we’ve been through six whole years of demolition and “renovation”, there’s still over 50 of us left in the building, and most of us are not going anywhere. And though I don’t know what the Chelsea is going to look like when it finally rises from the ashes, I feel pretty confident that it will ultimately evolve into something quite different and more interesting that what the developers have in mind. What kind of lunatic, after all, would want to buy a condo here? I know exactly what kind: the unrepentant, the rebels, the outlaws, the kind that come to New York looking for redemption.