Bullying has become a hot-button issue in recent years, a fact that Allen Kurzweil hasn't overlooked in Whipping Boy. It's his first volume of nonfiction, and the premise is as ripped-from-the-headlines as they come: Forty years after suffering the vicious abuse of a bully in school, Kurzweil has written an account of his decades-long search for Cesar Augustus Viana, the boy who tormented him.
But where other writers might have played up the subject's inherent melodrama and milked their own psychological trauma for as much pathos as possible, Kurzweil does the delightfully unexpected: He morphs his story from a poignant memoir into a true-crime thriller.
Kurzweil's father was an inventor and "champagne socialist" who escaped his native Vienna soon after Hitler's takeover in 1938 — but he died when Kurzweil was only five years old; a few years later, the boy winds up in a boarding school in Switzerland. The school in question, Aiglon College, is far from the idyllic vision most people have of such places. Its coldness and cruelty are personified in the form of Cesar, a bunkmate of Kurzweil's who taunts and terrorizes him, culminating in a bizarrely sadistic episode where Cesar beats Kurzweil with a belt to the tune of "The Thirty-Nine Lashes" from Jesus Christ Superstar.
The offense that stings the most, though, is the theft and destruction of a watch that his father had left him. Years later, as an author with a son of his own, Kurzweil's curiosity about Cesar becomes obsessive, and he tracks down his archenemy in earnest — a trail that leads to one of the most elaborate, colorful cases of high-finance fraud ever prosecuted.
As a raconteur, Kurzweil gets off to an uneven start. His memories of Aiglon waver between funny and heartbreaking, and it takes a while before his tone settles into a groove. Once it does, Whipping Boy doesn't let go. At first, Kurzweil barrels down numerous dead-ends, including the possibilities that Cesar is the son of an official in Ferdinand Marcos' government, or grew up to become a philanthropist. As his search inches closer to the far more fantastic truth, Kurzweil's fixation begins to consume him.
In a sense, Whipping Boy is a chronicle of its own creation; Kurzweil frequently stops to reevaluate why he's devoted so much of his life to his quest, and how the eventual publication of the book may effect all involved. Mostly, though, he mercilessly probes his own underlying motivation. Does he want revenge? Closure? Is he exploiting Cesar?
Kurzweil's self-doubt builds even as his search turns up more solid leads; he structures the book like a detective yarn, which in many ways it is. But when the solution finally comes, it's not enough for Kurzweil. He ratchets up the stakes to another level entirely, and his simultaneously daring and cowardly way of confronting his greatest fears is more nerve-lashing than a hundred smacks with a belt.
Whipping Boy is about bullying, but only to a point. Ultimately it's a book about family, and the ties that bind fathers and sons, even through death. And when Kurzweil starts to realize that he has far more in common with Cesar than he ever thought possible — including certain parallels in regard to their fathers — he raises a deeper question: Can people truly change? And if they can, do we really want them to?
Kurzweil fields these conundrums lucidly, charmingly, and at times harrowingly, without offering any easy answers. Yet he wraps up Whipping Boy with a novelistic, satisfying flourish that elevates the book beyond simple autobiography or cause célèbre moralizing. In masterfully unraveling decades of crime, cruelty, deception, and repression, he probes the nature of what it means to have an enemy—and what it costs to give others so much power over us.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club and author of the novel Taft 2012.