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
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?"
"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,
"That's all right," I replied. "I hate you,
"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.
Back to Archived Short
The Heir Hunter
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
Back to Archived Short
We've Got Spirit: The Life and Times of America's
Greatest Cheerleading Team
James T. McElroy
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.
Back to Archived Short
William D. Montalbano
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
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.
Back to Archived Short
nearly monochromatic range of tones and rhythms, Hans-Ulrich
Treichel's decidedly brief debut novel, Lost, is a profoundly
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.
Back to Archived Short
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