"Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." -Aldous Huxley

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wWednesday, July 09, 2003

STRANGER THINGS HAVE HAPPENED: Today, The Stranger got around to running my review of Jim Knipfel's new book. Normally, I would include a paragraph or two and a link, but here's the thing: The books editor heaped praise and then more praise on the original version of the piece and only reluctantly asked me to cut a hundred words or so to squeeze it in to a crowded schedule of reviews. So here's the link to the Stranger version, and here is the original:

Kook Beat
Jim Knipfel's Disoriented First Novel

In my very small Dutch hometown in a northwest cubbyhole of this state there sits a very bad pizza parlor. "Bad" because the pizza is usually burnt, the service is mediocre at best, and the prices are high. In fact, illness has almost always followed a trip to this establishment -- I once landed a genuine case of food poisoning. And yet, I keep going back, as do enough people to keep the place in business. I continue to return -- and I suspect that many of the others do as wel l-- out of what you might call an irrational fascination: How does a restaurant this bad manage to stay in business?

This same illogic, this tendency to meditate on why things don't work, kept me reading Jim Knipfel's first novel, The Buzzing. The protagonist with the odd-sounding name Roscoe Baragon is certainly not worth the price of admission, and Knipfel, to his credit, doesn't try to pretend otherwise. At 42 and 45 pounds overweight, Baragon is a once-great reporter who "no longer [has] the energy, the drive, or the cold viciousness it [takes] to get ahead in this business." He's also a slob, a hack, an obsessive and a borderline misanthrope. His parents are long dead and he has precisely one good friend, Emily Roschen, a gorgeous brunette drinking buddy who works in the city morgue.

As the story opens, we learn that Baragon has managed to survive in the news biz by taking on the "kook beat" at an otherwise boring mid-market New York daily newspaper. He writes stories about people who claim that ghosts are haunting museums or that aliens have stolen their pluming fixtures or that they've been kidnapped by the state of Alaska.

Actually, it began as more of a slump than a beat. Because Baragon tended to treat "the crazies" more respectfully than most reporters, and because fielding a few whacked out phone calls was easier than burning shoe leather, he fell into the pattern of writing up oddball stories, avoiding normal people, drinking far too much, and going to sleep by the flickering light of bad Japanese movies. But along the way, something happened. When Emily drags Baragon home from the bar one night, he confesses that his greatest fear is "that someday… I might… just… be… right" in suspecting that the crazies are onto something.

As far as the plot goes, The Buzzing is anorexic and dizzy. The book traces Baragon's retreat from reality, from intimacy, from life, as he begins to wrap disconnected strands from personal experience and press clippings into the mother of all conspiracy theories. He comes to believe that a race of underwater dwelling humanoids are triggering earthquakes, buying up property in New York, and using the destitute for experimentation; and that he needs to find Godzilla to rescue mankind from these evil sea people. Worse, Baragon suspects that Emily and Everyone Else are in on it.

Knipfel paints a thin veneer of unreality over the last part of the book. Some of the lines of Baragon's erstwhile friends are just weird and vague enough to make you wonder, for one brief moment, if he's onto something. This is played up in the book's advertising to appeal to X-philes. The author's bio explains that he lives in Brooklyn: "That much he knows." (Yeah, and the truth is way the hell out there, too.) Which is to say that the book refrains from saying outright what readers will be able to see: The guy has lost it.

Chronicling someone's degeneration is old hat for Knipfel, a decent writer for the alternative weekly New York Press whose interests are almost as offbeat as Baragon's. His first two books, Slackjaw and Quitting the Nairobi Trio, were about his own life: how he went (legally) blind and how he tried to kill himself and spent a year locked up under close observation. Comparisons of Baragon with Knipfel would be interesting, if you go in for that sort of thing. The important difference between Knipfel's previous books and The Buzzing is that the others had a nice cozy straight jacket-like plot imposed by real events, while this book struggles to find its way.

posted by Jeremy at 10:49 PM