Arthur and Jack have been getting into more and more verbal and physical fights at school. Mr. Mitchell, a teacher who recruits students from his PE class to participate in a once-a-year public boxing match, suggests Arthur and Jack work out their aggressions by participating in the “smoker.” The matches are often dirty, and feature several “grudge fights,” the fires of which Mitchell himself stokes. As the match approaches, Arthur and Jack purposefully refuse to mend fences, hoping to keep their “grudge” going until the match.
The tension between Arthur and Jack at last comes to a head as they face off in a sanctioned match, permitted to fight one another in earnest after all these years and even congratulated for their desire to enact violence on one another. This passage demonstrates the conflation of abuse and education Jack has faced several times in his young life.
In reality, the two boys have grown apart; Arthur gets good grades and even has a steady girlfriend, while Jack gets into trouble and looks down on the “straight-arrows and strivers” Arthur is friendly with. Jack sees Arthur’s respectability as a “performance.” Jack can tell that Arthur is petrified of his girlfriend, and seeing his old friend behave so dully and effortfully in pursuit of normalcy troubles Jack.
Jack, a seasoned “performer” himself, recognizes that Arthur, too, is undertaking a great performance. This recognition makes Jack himself feel exposed and spotlit, forcing him to recognize the ways in which his own performances of identity might be just as transparent to others as Arthur’s is to him.
At the fight, goaded on by the support his friends and (unlikeliest of all) Dwight, have showed him in the weeks leading up to it, Jack strikes Arthur with a swift, hard uppercut, stunning his friend. Jack can feel the blow hurt Arthur; what’s more, as he delivers it and snaps Arthur’s head back, he can feel the exultation and pride Dwight, up in the stands, must feel for him in that moment.
As Jack beats up on Arthur in earnest, he feels the insidious ways in which Dwight’s influence over him has, in fact, been successful; Jack’s cruel streak is a direct result of Dwight’s influence, and the strange desire to please Dwight—in spite of hating him—confuses and appalls Jack.