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A Push and a Shove: A Novel by Christopher…
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A Push and a Shove: A Novel

by Christopher Kelly

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Christopher Kelly’s A Push and a Shove is my favorite kind of novel. One with a multi-faceted and difficult gay protagonist, a complex plot and a universal theme. In other words, this is not a “gay” novel by the classic definition, but a dark, sophisticated story that just happens to have a gay character in the lead role.

That protagonist [and narrator] Ben Reilly, is a young man from a Staten Island family shattered by the early death of his older sister. Brought up to be timid and mistrustful, Ben is an easy target for Terrence O'Connell, the high school bully, on whom he harbors a secret crush. After graduation, Ben remains in S.I. to become a junior high teacher while Terrence goes on to Yale, a successful career in Manhattan as a staff writer for GQ and a soon to be released novel being shopped around Hollywood. An incident of violence at Ben’s school brings back painful memories for him, prompting him to seek revenge on his old nemesis. But the warm and attractive man he encounters in adulthood is a far cry from the cruel boy he remembers.

This is a captivating piece of storytelling that was very hard to put down. It’s a bit like a thriller, designed to leave the reader on edge, guessing what will happen next. But it's also a character study and, in many ways, it mimics the set-up of a typical Z-Grade gay romance. You know the type, the closeted homosexual bully who targets the effeminate school geek because he can’t act on his latent desire. But this is no romance. And despite my growing certainty that this wasn’t going to end well, I couldn't help but root for Ben and Terrence to get together once they’ve re-connected as adults. But Kelly is a much too ambitious writer to settle for something so artless as that.

Thank goodness.

This is a psychological examination of self-perception and self-deception. Just when the reader's sympathies lie wholly with Ben, Kelly turns the tables so that the reader questions his reliability as a narrator. Ben is an impressive and complicated creation. His ego has been totally hobbled by his parents, who have been so devastated by the loss of their oldest child that they manage to be completely overbearing yet emotionally withholding at the same time. Physically, Ben is never described, so the reader pictures him as he sees himself - small, weak and ineffectual. It’s not until very late in the story, when the pivotal high school episode between them is recounted, through Terrence's point of view, that a different picture emerges. Of both Ben and the incident itself.

This book is devilishly clever. It would make a wonderful film. If you're looking for a break from overly simplistic “good vs. evil” stories or have had your fill of predictable HEA LGBT romance, please give this one a go. You’ll thank me. ( )
  blakefraina | Oct 6, 2014 |
Ben's past is tragically classic, bullied for being gay. But Ben is in love with his bully. There's something to it, I know, but I can't remember its name. Sometime's while reading this book, I thought that it was ridiculous, that Ben liked Terrance so much. But really what this book is about is sexual obsession. Those two things put together made the story engaging. The material in here is explicit so don't read if you’re too young. I won’t say what age is too young since everyone is different, but just be aware. I liked this book and I didn't like it. I didn't like what an ass Ben was starting to be, but I liked how it depicts a relationship like that to realistic. Sure, Ben can be an ass, and Terrance can be too passive but the way Kelly has written those scenes where the two argue or interact... well it just seems right to me. It seems real. Probably not something I would read again, but not sorry I did. :) ( )
  Kassilem | Oct 23, 2011 |
Hummm...Difficult to characterize my feelings about this book, which is literally finished reading 15 minutes ago. My reaction is two-fold. The unreclaimed teenager, who was bullied in high school in much the same say that Benjamin was by Terrence was all to ready for revenge to be exacted. Through the book's middle section, I felt a critical disconnect as Ben fell once again under Terrence's thrall. Do we NEVER learn the lessons of the universe? Are we, as Harville Hendrix would have it, bound forever by the imagos that formed our early emotional relationships? Such would seem to be the case here. For Kelly, it's only through violence that we are able to slip the ironclad grasp the imago and try to heal.

The second half of my reaction was the soothing feeling that--as I've grown, older and more spiritual--that I have less urge to exact revenge than I did when I was younger. Perhaps one of the lessons we learn as we grow older is that, to be a "creature of faith" doesn't mean that we have to be present when God levels the playing field.

And I'll close by including a favorite quotation from the book: "I realized that just as every successful life is defined by one or two good decisions, every unsuccessful life is defined by one or two bad decisions." There's insight there. Think about your own life..... ( )
  bookmaven404 | Jul 28, 2008 |
Quite a lot about this novel surprised me--most of it written on the cover. Certainly it was a smoothly written ride, carrying me from start to finish without any bumps; it was psychologically aware, and every characterization was on point and believable. But, c'mon, judging by the number of blurbs pasted to the cover you'd think that Christopher Kelly had given the world the greatest piece of art this decade. A "spellbinding tour de force"? "The bastard child of Patricia Highsmith and Vladimir Nabokov"? It was nicely put together, but there were no surprises here, no word-gems strung together like a princess' jewelry to admire, no wow! factor. Better than average, certainly, but riding a wave of personality rather than art.

The other major surprise was the jarring disconnect between the actual story and the description of the novel, on the back cover and in the blurb praises. What does a "'darkly disturbing' revenge fantasy" mean to these people? According to the setup, I expected Ben, the narrator and victim of a high school bully Terrence, to deviously seek out his former tormentor in order to exact a meticulous, psychologically if not also physically painful, revenge and "put his demons to rest." Plastered across the back cover, even, in huge bold capitalized letters: VENGEANCE IS MINE. What I got was a dude who never really got over his conflicted sexual desire for his bully and, prompted by an incident among two of his students that mirrored his last encounter with said bully, decides to see if he can't find some closure. The word "revenge" is tossed around a couple of times, but really Ben just wants to make Terrence part of his life again, whether that's a good idea or not. When Terrence *does* become part of Ben's life, we get a character study, two men struggling with their identities and their desires: _Brokeback Mountain,_ not "The Cask of Amontillado." The ending of the novel, while logical, was petulant rather than devious or triumphant. I figured the story wasn't going to be as intense a revenge fantasy as, say, _Titus Andronicus_ or _Oldboy_, but "darkly disturbing"? Not by a long shot. Still, _A Push and a Shove_ always rings true, psychologically. I suspect that the cover blurbs and synopsis are more the product of the publisher and agent, rather than the author's intention. Four stars. ( )
  astuo | Jun 16, 2008 |
Told between the past and the present, A Push and a Shove is the story of Ben Reilly, a gay man who in high school was bullied viciously by another boy named Terrence. Yet at the same time Ben had a huge crush on Terrence, and this mixture of hate and love haunts Ben even when they become adults. Ten years after the fact, Ben tracks down Terrence, and to his surprise, they become friends. But their history remains between them like an uneasy, dark undercurrent and Ben can never forget.

This was a compelling book about the connections people have whether they want to or not, and the endurance, good and bad, of these connections. I can relate because like Ben I feel a strong connection to my childhood that I can’t shake off. Even though I barely talk to anybody I used to know, I still think about them and wonder what could have been. So A Push and a Shove felt real to me, not only in its exploration of memory but also in its characters. Ben and Terrence are imperfect with their own histories that can give us a clue as to why they act the way they do.

I like that some things are left in the air at the end, that we never quite understand (even with character background) what compelled Terrence to push Ben, or vice versa. When I said the book felt realistic, I meant this; that it doesn’t wrap everything up in a nice pink bow. It’s a love story, depending on how you look at it, but it can’t end happily, and it doesn’t. ( )
  veevoxvoom | Mar 22, 2008 |
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Confronting the childhood bully isn't as simply as it sounds. 'A Push and a Shove' is a dark and disturbing novel about relationships, and how time doesn't always heal all wounds.

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