BASS 2020: Kevin Wilson, “Kennedy” from Subtropics #27

One year in high school there was this boy. And he wore Cannibal Corpse T shirts. And one of my friends and I were in an art class with him. And he poked us with X-Acto knives and burned us with glue guns while we made a Parthenon out of cardboard …. I think my complete passivity was repulsive to him, to the point that I angered him, my existence. Now, I don’t even think that boy would remember me. And I don’t think he’d consider anything he did to even be bad.
The ending of the fictional story is not my story, thank God, so there’s this point where Jamie, who is me, becomes not me. He becomes what I guess he always was, just a character. And I have a family and my life is good. But I don’t think Jamie’s life is good. I wanted to steer him toward a different life, but I guess I failed. And I feel those echoes, where our stories separate. It’s a strange sensation.

Kevin Wilson, Contributor Note

If someone described this story to me – “It’s about a couple of high school kids getting bullied” – I probably wouldn’t want to read it. But somehow, it was one of the most readable and addictive stories in the book. I think a lot of that is the tone. As strange as this sounds, it often reads like  someone adapted a Quentin Tarantino script into an episode of The Wonder Years. It takes us to hell, but returns to almost-normalcy where there’s the aftereffect, a leftover fear, that exists in a pseudo-normal world. The duality is unnerving. It’s fascinating, surreal. I suspect it’s accurate, that these kids are caught in their own world of terror, and trying to maintain enough normalcy so that no one notices.

This sense of being trapped, of having no way out, is front and center in the story; it’s mentioned several times, either within the moment, or in retrospect:

Looking back on it, I want to take myself and just shake and shake, like, What the fuck is wrong with you? Why did you let that happen? But I can still remember those moments, when it felt like I was paralyzed inside my own body, like I had to pull myself deeper and deeper inside of myself, away from the surface, in order to stay alive. I think Ben felt the same way. We tried not to talk about it.

The story even breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly: “I keep trying to explain to you why I didn’t try harder, but maybe you understand. Maybe you don’t think this is as strange as it feels to me.” It’s one of the more perverse aspects of abuse that it’s the victim, not the perpetrator, who feels shame, and doesn’t want anyone to know he’s being abused, even when that’s the only way to end the suffering. As a reader, I wanted to reach through the page and tell Jamie that it’s ok he couldn’t tell. It was a powerful connection, to feel protective of a character, to want to comfort him.

Then there’s the quality of their isolation. They’re together alone. Kennedy, on the other hand, is just alone. That makes a big difference. It’s not everything, but you can’t heal if you can’t survive.

Kennedy’s dual nature also shuttles the story between grim horror and pathos. At times he seems like a pure sociopath; at times, he seems like he’s trying very hard to be together alone, to survive, but he just doesn’t know how to do it and doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong. Jamie and Ben see glimpses of this, too, and while they’re overwhelmingly more scared of him, a kind of subtle compassion might be at work as well. 

The scene at Jamie’s home shows both the qualities of aloneness each experience, and Kennedy’s dual nature. The way Kennedy invites himself over seems like just more bullying, but it’s also a clumsy attempt to make friends. He’s stunned by the simplest hospitality of Jamie’s mom. When Jamie invites him to play video games, he tells them he’s never played one in his life. That’s pretty odd for a teenager. He doesn’t get the hang of it, and soon tires of screen violence in favor of the real thing, grabbing the other boys and roughing them up.

“What is wrong with you?” Ben asked him, but his voice wasn’t angry. It was genuinely confused, hurt.
“What?” Kennedy said. “This is all me and my brother did, fucking wrestling, trying to beat the shit out of each other. And then he joined the army, and now it’s just me at home. I just wanted to fuck around.” He pointed at me. “You had some fight in you for like half a second and then you pussied out.”
“I think you better go home,” I said, almost crying, trying hard not to cry.
He looked at me like he couldn’t tell if I was joking or not, like he had no idea why I was upset. “Seriously?” he said finally. When I didn’t say anything, he just shrugged and said, “Well, you have to drive me home.”
“Fine,” I said, trying to breathe normally, trying to make my body move. “I’ll drive you home.”

Damn, Wilson, you really know how to engage a reader’s compassion for a sociopath. Maybe his brother was terrified of him too, and joined the Army to get away from him. Or maybe the brother was his together-alone person, and Kennedy’s trying to replace him with Jamie and Ben. Yet the scene is one big red flag: video game violence just doesn’t cut it, he wants the real thing (so much for the theories that go the other way), and his voice is described as “monotone,” indicating something along the lines of blunted affect. Something is seriously wrong with this kid.

When Kennedy demands they come to his house, they’re just as scared, and for good reason. Again, though, there’s this duality: it’s a fairly normal home. That is, until Kennedy unlocks the two padlocks on his bedroom door and takes a box of handcuffs and floggers out of the closet.

And here’s where my credulity is stretched a little too far: I don’t understand why Jamie complies with Kennedy’s bizarre requests. I suppose part of it is Ben’s presence. Maybe he thinks Ben will keep things from getting out of hand. And again there’s this trapped sensation, like there’s no choice. I doubt Kennedy has thought this deeply about it, but to make someone complicit in their own torture is truly evil, adding another layer of isolation: Jamie can’t tell, because he’d have to admit he laid down on the bed and put on the handcuffs. How many women have been in this position: if they just cooperate with their rapist, they’ll survive. How many defense lawyers use that in court to obtain acquittals. For that matter, how many cases never come to court because a prosecutor warns a victim that it will happen.

And then I heard Ben screaming, crying, and after a little while the door burst open. “What the fuck is going on?” Kennedy’s father yelled, and Kennedy dropped the flogger. I turned my head as far as I could, looking over my shoulder, just in time to see his father walk across the room, push Ben into one wall, and slam Kennedy against the other—once, then twice, leaving a ragged hole in the drywall. When he tossed his son a third time, Kennedy fell against the window, the glass shattering and tinkling on the ground outside.

And again, we’re thrown from horror to pathos, from Kennedy as sociopath to Kennedy as abused kid. This only escalates when Kennedy misses a few days of school and finally shows up with obvious injuries. It’s kind of stunning that the art teacher only tells him he’s behind and needs to catch up. I thought things had changed since I was in high school.

The final scene is another escalation, but it’s filtered through a phone call. Someone Jamie and Ben finally stand up to Kennedy and refuse to go to his house again. They huddle together at Jamie’s house, until the phone call breaks the tension and lets them know they did the right thing. But there’s still an element of guilt.

What were we apologizing for? That we hadn’t protected each other? That we hadn’t kept each other safe? But I knew that he was sorry. And he knew that I was sorry. And he held on to me. And I held on to him. I think about that moment all the time. I wonder where Ben is now. I wonder what he’s doing. I wonder if he thinks about it. I miss him so much.

I think part of the power of this story is that we aren’t expected to understand some of it. We only need to know these kids went through something together alone. The story leaves all kinds of echoes of unresolved chords: We don’t even know how far in the future the flash forward in the final sentences takes place. But we know theirs was a committed fiendship, a kind of wartime experience, and Jamie will probably never have that kind of relationship with another male in his life. And it’s interesting that, in his Contributor Note, Wilson shows a kind of similar bond with Jamie, the self that became not-self.

Wilson’s latest novel, Nothing to See Here, has been floating around my twitter feed for a while now. It features a couple of twins who spontaneously combust when upset, and the people who must care for them. I also remember the story I encountered back in 2012, “A Birth in the Woods.” I wasn’t reading very well back then, but what strikes me about all three Wilson encounters is that they feature something flamboyant and memorable – children bursting into flames, a bear-child being born, a sociopathic teenage bully – but those features are really incidental to the attachment, loss, and isolation that are the heart of the stories. This could be read as gimmickry, but I think it’s more important than that. It’s more like Wilson’s characters need a bizarre circus to lead them to the human feelings they otherwise take for granted. I hadn’t planned to read this new novel, but after this story I’m reconsidering.

* * *

Other takes on this story:

Jake Weber at Workshop Heretic: “But Ben and Jaime aren’t the only invisible ones. The word “invisible” appears twice in the story. The second time, it’s about Kennedy.”

The complete story can be read online at Subtropics.

2 responses to “BASS 2020: Kevin Wilson, “Kennedy” from Subtropics #27

  1. There are tons of great stories in BASS, but most aren’t “page-turners.” This was one that I couldn’t stop once I started until I got to the end. It almost made me feel guilty, like I wasn’t supposed to be reading BASS that way.

  2. Pingback: BASS 2020: Of Mythologies and Misbehaving Men, Among Other Things | A Just Recompense

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