Table of Contents | Current Short Takes | Archives | FAQ | e-Mail Us

 March 2000 Short Takes

Jim Knipfel
235 pp.



So you're seriously depressed, your eyesight is rapidly deteriorating due to incurable congenital retinitis pigmentosa, you've got a lesion on the left temporal lobe of your brain that subjects you to intermittent "rage seizures," and oh yes, there's that little drinking problem too.

If these details strike you as the perfect setup for high hilarity, then you've just the right sense of humor to appreciate Jim Knipfel's Slackjaw, a very funny book that begins with a suicide attempt, ends in near total blindness, and throws in a failed marriage, an aborted Ph.D., a nearly fatal concussion, a few more suicide attempts, and a wholly talent-free punk band called the Pain Amplifiers in between.

Online with a suicide hotline at the start of the book, Knipfel quotes Wagner: "Amidst laughter should we face our doom." It could be the book's epigraph. That, and "do not go gentle into that good night." Slackjaw is a joyous elegy to being chronically existentially pissed off. More refreshing still, Knipfel makes no attempt whatsoever to justify, explain or redeem his emotional state of affairs. Not that going blind might not excuse a certain degree of despondence, but Knipfel insists, "Despite everything, going blind hasn't bothered me so much."

Instead, he gets to the crux of that particular kind of intractable depression that hovers somewhere between angst and ennui. "Just living is a pain in the ass," he tells a doctor, trying to explain his most recent suicide attempt. "Suicide seems a perfectly sane response to a banal world."

Yet in many respects Knipfel's world seems anything but banal. Odd things happen to him. Odd people. Odd jobs. Odd odds. In the preface Knipfel notes that the chances of suffering both retinitis pigmentosa and a lesion-inducing traumatic brain injury are about 1 in 65,000. Just his luck. Odds are good too that he is the only brass-knuckle-sporting philosophy grad student in Minneapolis who shoplifts his library and hangs out with "dealers, other thieves, hookers, pimps, a few men who claimed to be murderers." Dropping out of graduate school, he moves to a slum of an apartment in Philadelphia and stumbles into a writing career, with an equal-opportunity-offender of a regular column called "Slackjaw" that earns him a steady diet of hate mail and death threats.

What makes Jim Knipfel interesting is that he has no interest in making himself likeable. To the contrary, he goes to some lengths to inventory all his worst qualities and low moments. Most of them happen to be quite funny. Or rather, in Knipfel's sardonic voice they are made so.

Life as an absurdist comedy, "one slapstick routine--like living a Marx Brothers movie, except without so many musical numbers," is Knipfel's theme. On the subway one day, he finds himself standing next to a guy trying to impress a couple of girls by pretending to be the writer Jim Knipfel. On the street, another time, he has this exchange:


...someone tapped me on the shoulder as I was waiting to cross the street. A haggard, blurry young man.

"Do you know where the Social Security office is?" he asked.

"No, I'm afraid I have no idea."

"You got no idea."

"Nope. Nosir. No idea at all."

"I hate you," he said softly, leaning toward me, pleasantry gone.

"That's all right," I replied. "I hate you, too."

"Then we're all set!" he barked with a smile. He stuck out his hand and I shook it. The light changed and we continued our respective searches.


When finally, after years of resistance, he acknowledges the changes that failing vision have wrought in his world and seeks out services for the blind, he finds himself tangled in one bizarre bureaucracy after another.


At last count, I had four or five caseworkers. A couple of them I'd spoken with only once, and that was so they could tell me that they were my one true caseworker and that I shouldn't pay attention to anything any of the others said. My experiences...suggested that the various Blind Man organizations in the city hated one another with a passion and tried to undercut one another whenever they could, regardless of how that might affect the people they were supposed to be helping.


Knipfel's descriptions of learning the ropes of being blind in a sighted world could not be more different from those written in another recent memoir of vision lost, Henry Grunwald's Twilight. "Lyrical" is not a word you'd apply to Knipfel's work, and if you did, he'd probably be insulted. This biting, unapologetic irreverence, however, is what makes Knipfel's book so refreshing "Going blind is...a sick and funny business," Knipfel writes, and that, in the Slackjaw worldview, is its up side.

--Caroline Kettlewell

Back to Archived Short Takes

The Heir Hunter
Chris Larsgaard
Delacorte Press
356 pp.



Let's not mince words: Chris Larsgaard's The Heir Hunter is a whopper of a debut.

And now take a deep breath because here's the plot setup: Nick Merchant, a private investigator who specializes in tracking down heirs and charging them a percentage for alerting them to unknown inheritances, has just bribed his way into the mother of all estates--a cool twenty-two million, U.S. He knows the competition--a much bigger company with the ominously non-specific name of General Inquiry--is right behind him, so he has to move fast. But the case (the decedent is an eighty-seven-year-old glass worker from England) is surprisingly difficult to crack. Even though the coroner rules the man's death an accidental drowning, there are large, suspicious bruises across his ribs--as if he'd been held under water and had thrashed against the bath tub's sides. With little else to work with, Nick collects the dead man's mail and finds the man had made a lot of calls to the U.S. Justice Department. Almost immediately, FBI agents show up at the office of the man Nick had bribed and demand that the file on the dead glass worker disappear. Now. They also show up at Nick's office as well as General Inquiry's, where they demand that the case be dropped and all information about it be erased. But Nick is on the edge of financial failure, and finding the heirs would put him in tall cotton. Besides, somebody else appears to be after him as well, and they don't seem like they're willing to let him simply walk away from the case unscathed.

The Heir Hunter's great novelty, of course, lies in its heir-finding angle. It's a shockingly promising environment in which to set a thriller, and it's amazing that it hasn't been done before. Larsgaard's own decade-long experience as an heir finder lends an air of authenticity to his portrait of a highly competitive, little-known sub-category of private investigation, and it breathes fresh air into the too-often rather jaded thriller genre. But it's Larsgaard's ability to deliver fast-paced action and truly surprising plot twists that makes this such a winning entry.

Highly recommended.

--Woody Arbunkle

Back to Archived Short Takes

We've Got Spirit: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Cheerleading Team
James T. McElroy
368 pp.



Okay, cheerleaders.

If you're hard-pressed to imagine working yourself into a big lather of worry over the troubles of a bunch of perky teenage girls in kicky little pleated skirts, then you're about where I was when I started reading We've Got Spirit. After all, cheerleaders are the ones supposed to be having the good time in high school, when all the rest of us were miserable.

So I was expecting this book--with its highly unpromising cover like a cheap young adult novel--to run something along the lines of a beauty-pageant exposé. You know, the eating disorders, the overbearing stage mothers, the ruthless competition barely masked by strained professions of camaraderie, and other dark truths behind the toothpaste smiles. Instead what I found was a surprisingly engrossing story about how much it takes to be "America's greatest cheerleading team."

The Greenup County (Kentucky) Musketeers have won eight national cheerleading championships since 1981--that's what qualifies them as "the greatest," in the book's terms. It seems that, for top teams like Greenup County High's varsity, competitions are what cheerleading is all about now; rallying the crowds at school sporting events amounts to little more than a sideline.

To win at these championships takes far more than pom-poms and perfect smiles. You can't even qualify to try out for the Greenup varsity if you can't throw a standing back tuck. So here's how you do a "standing back": from a standing position, jump up in the air, tuck your knees to your chest, spin through the air backwards--without putting your hands down--and land on your feet again. Go ahead, give it a try.

Most teams have a few girls with a "standing back"; one of Greenup's trademarks is the crowd-thrilling moment in their routine when the whole team executes simultaneous standing backs. That's the stuff of cheerleading greatness.

The Greenup girls are a powerhouse of stunts, spirit, and sex appeal. They throw hair-raising tumbling runs that would do a competitive gymnast proud. They lift each other high into the air for aerial displays like the basket toss and the switch liberty and the heel stretch. And since Greenup County--a down-at-the-heels patch of rural Kentucky left untouched by the '90s economic boom--can't (or won't) muster the resources to provide their cheerleaders with tumbling mats, the team practices all these stunts over unforgiving floors. When the girls fall, they fall hard. We've Got Spirit is, among other things, an excruciating litany of painful injuries: torn anterior cruciate ligaments, sprained backs, dislocated joints, and a host of random scrapes, bruises, and black eyes. All this, for the fleeting glory of a gold-plated trophy and a few minutes' coverage on ESPN.

Author James T. McElroy, a former reporter for The Charlotte Leader (and married, the book's bio notes, to a former cheerleader and cheerleading coach) uses the year following the team's win at the 1997 National Championships to explore what that brief glory means for the girls, their families, and their coaches, in a backwater Kentucky county of narrow ambitions and stunted dreams, where cheering for the Greenup varsity may well represent the high point of a lifetime. Thus, there is more pathos than you might expect in the story that unfolds; in spite of its title, what the book ends up chronicling is America's Greatest Cheerleading Team coming to pieces.

Seniors graduate. The new recruits aren't quite up to standard. Injuries plague the team. Performances are inconsistent. There's a pregnancy, family problems, one girl struggling with her standing back. Most vexing of all, they don't have spirit. Behind-the-scenes rivalries, rumors, and resentments tear at their cohesion. They're no longer a team, they're a collection of girls, beginning to wobble, sway and crumple like an off-kilter stunt.

McElroy's strength is his reporter's eye--he lets the details and the people tell their own story. There are points, however, when he might have let some of them speak less. While the head coach's transformation of Greenup into one of cheerleading's most admired and imitated teams and the (male) choreographer's coming to terms with being gay are not uninteresting story lines, McElroy's chapter-long digressions into extended interviews with these adults distract from the book's narrative momentum. We've Got Spirit is the girls' story, and the book is at its most engrossing when it follows the particular agonies and ecstasies of being fifteen or sixteen or seventeen years old, when everything in your life seems to turn on your standing back tuck.

--Caroline Kettlewell

Back to Archived Short Takes

William D. Montalbano
176 pp.


Paul Lorenzo was a Miami cop living paycheck to paycheck when an unnerving offer of financial freedom arose: without actively seeking it out, he got himself a shot at an easy million in cash, tax-free. Naturally, it wasn't strictly legal, and, as you might expect, the Latin American drug cartel he stole it from wasn't willing to let the theft go unanswered. Their retaliation cost Paul his family and his career, and by the time William D. Montalbano's Basilica opens (fourteen years after the theft), his life has changed markedly--at least, in some ways.

Now, he's living in Rome as a Roman Catholic brother, "a kind of not-quite priest kicking around the back alleys of the world's largest church." But he's not living on the straight and narrow, precisely. Nor does the Church want him to: it utilizes his skills as a detective and all-around tough guy to take care of its more embarrassing problems--in a quiet way. They don't necessarily condone the violence he sometimes feels is necessary to make the problems go away, but they certainly appreciate their going away, one way or another.

But when a priest is shoved off the roof of St. Peter's Basilica and Brother Paul begins quietly investigating the case as a homicide, he seems to be getting in over his head--and quickly. Soon, the case widens to take in the Church itself--a battle over the Church's future is being waged between its radical and reactionary wings, and the Pope's very life seems to hang in the balance. That Brother Paul's stolen million had come from the Pope (back when he was called the Cocaine Cardinal) and that the drug cartel might be financing Rome's reactionary wing certainly doesn't bode well.

Basilica is the sort of thriller that sparks envy in genre writers. Montalbano's characters are strong and clearly defined, and he maintains a smooth pace that quickly builds narrative momentum. Only rarely does the reader have to slow down and read carefully through a plot-dense passage, which is a godsend for the genre. Too often, thriller writers excel at delivering the action only to let their text get bottlenecked around complicated plot machinations. It's one thing to tie an impressively big, fat knot; it's quite another to undo it quickly, and with grace. That Montalbano manages to do this in a novel peopled mostly by priests, lay brothers and a pope is an accomplishment of oxymoronic proportions.

But Basilica's greatest feature is Brother Paul himself, I think. As a vengeful brother who is unapologetic about carnal pleasure, he has enough ambiguities to keep him interesting, and he narrates his story in a comfortable, easy voice that defies the reader to put the book down. Basilica is great popular fiction, and it does the thriller genre proud.

--Woody Arbunkle

Back to Archived Short Takes

Hans-Ulrich Treichel
Pantheon Books
136 pp.


Despite its nearly monochromatic range of tones and rhythms, Hans-Ulrich Treichel's decidedly brief debut novel, Lost, is a profoundly disturbing work.

The plot is grimly simple. A German family of three is fleeing the Russian army in 1945 when it is stopped on the road by a band of marauding soldiers.


They had neither seen nor heard anything all night long, no sound of engines, no sound of marching boots, no calls of "Dawai! Dawai!" Yet the Russians were suddenly there. Where there had been an empty field a moment ago, thirty or forty armed Russians were standing, and they broke into the moving column of fugitives to choose their victims exactly where my mother and father and Arnold were. They realized at once that something dreadful was going to happen, and as one of the Russians had already put his gun to my father's chest, my mother just had time to put her child in the arms of a passing woman, who luckily wasn't detained by any of the Russians. But the speed and panic of it all were such that she had no chance to exchange a single word with the woman, not even to call out little Arnold's name to her, and the woman disappeared immediately in the tide of refugees.


While the parents survive the encounter, "something dreadful" is done to the mother, though she won't tell her surviving, younger son (who narrates the story) what, exactly, it was. Once they are safely ensconced in West Germany's post-war success, though, the parents become obsessed with finding the lost son. While war orphans are plentiful, it's not easy, in the pre-DNA-testing era, to match parents to children definitively, and their quest seems destined to fail.

To say that Treichel has done something cunning with this book's structure seems improper somehow, given its manifest sincerity. But his decision to write the novel without any direct quotations, chapter breaks or even secondary characters is indeed sophisticated, if not exactly cunning. It shifts the reader's attention away from the more melodramatic elements of the plot and focuses our attention instead on the shared chord struck by the characters' individual dilemmas--the father who loses himself in business rather than help his wife recover her psychological well-being; the mother who shifts her terror of the Russian encounter into a life-long obsession with the lost child; and the younger son, who doesn't understand what precisely is wrong with his family and worries desperately that any change in the balance--like, say, finding his long-lost brother--will only topple his precarious sense of well-being. Behind each of them lies a common need for comfort and a sense of belonging, and the accumulative sense of pathos comes from their inability to acknowledge candidly this shared need.

Lost's quietness is deceptive. While it is easily, even quickly read, I find its characters still lingering with me, and their stories continue to disturb.

--Daphne Frostchild

Back to Archived Short Takes Click here to find any title!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Archived Short Takes

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 2000
riverrun enterprises, inc.