Big Head Ed is the name of the bully in G. Brian Karas’s Home on the Bayou, and it doesn’t get any prettier than that. “Look out,” warn the children. “Here comes Big Head Ed,” whereupon shoves and sneers and otherwise humiliation are dependably delivered before everyone sort of goes back to their business.
In Home on the Bayou that business includes a young cowboy’s assimilation in Louisiana swampland, his open hostility toward his mother for moving them there, and the vague and wishful memories of his “wandering daddy” who left him with the assurance that were cowboys out there to watch over him when he sleeps:
“They lasso the moon for you when it rises over their heads.”
Amid all of this heartache, Big Head Ed looms as a distraction, exactly as he should. Let’s hear it, then, for bullies! Where would we be without the thankless and dedicated service of Ed and spiritually challenged numbskulls everywhere – in literature and in life? From the moment they are jabbing a pencil into our necks at naptime right up until they are getting spectacularly lassoed by spurting garden hoses, or forced out of office at the end of a spear, what happier ending is there to all of our fears and knotty embarrassments than a bully’s unequivocal dumping?
Oh, the satisfaction I still derive when toy soldiers go marching up a tree to liberate Miss Suzy’s old house from a band of good-for-nothing red squirrels:
“Will you go peaceably, or must we fight?”
Yeah, suck on that, red squirrels!
I think of Hubert the Pudge, grown monstrously large in the wild, returning at last to the pudge farm, and shaking farmer Jake into a life of vegetarianism and fitness training.
Of Chester and Wilson, two nerdy little mice riding their bikes and practicing hand signals when older kids turn up out of nowhere popping wheelies and yelling “personal remarks,” still then who should appear but a fierce looking cat with horrible fangs, aka Lilly, their costume-wearing irrepressible neighbor from several doors (and several books) over.
The thrill is still visceral, and I cannot help it, having spent an admittedly pathological fraction of my childhood dreaming of such an intervention. Whenever my kids ask me what I was like – at six years old, at nine years old, at twelve - I tell them: scared. Which is probably not a comfort, and I’m sure I was also a basket case in any number of more complicated and hilarious ways, yet I remember nothing more clearly than yearning to be spared the humiliation of classmates’ verbal missiles, random headlocks, or blindside observations. While I am sure that none of the takedowns were ever very clever, and I probably could have broken free from people’s armpits without reciting whatever mea culpa was that day expected to gain my liberation, still in hindsight what was so awesome about my tormentors was the sheer commitment it must have required to go about selecting a target and continually fire away.
This is no small order when you think about it, given the risk that any minor overreach might conclude in an overthrow, and yet the bullies I have known continued working successfully for years. My mother used to say whenever I came home with an eye swollen shut, inhaler in pieces, confidence shredded to the texture of Muesli – my mother used to console me about the accused that they were probably “insecure”, indeed it became a running joke that even continues today whenever we read about some hideous human accomplishment in the papers. Not serial killers necessarily. The bullies of yesterday probably come armed to adulthood with whatever powers of concentration, persistence - and yes, some insecurity even - amount to jobs of historic and political importance.
As for Big Head Ed, he “didn’t show his sorry face for days,” but I’m glad the book ends where it does, before he gets a chance to tell everyone why he’s really such a jerk, because he’s poor, because he has a really Big Headache, and they welcome him back into the gang, and everyone has a sleepover, and Randy Newman sings a song, and all the birds of the air and the beasts of the land… no, I’m happy to presume at Ed’s soullessness. Most of us are already plenty busy trying to unlock the mysteries of our own behavior, and our children’s, and people we love, and people we’re on the fence about, without also needing to wonder about the forces of dysfunction assembling where we can only guess.