Jim Knipfel | The Blow-Off (Simon & Schuster)

The populace of the Big Apple, famous for being fearless and intolerant, would certainly never put up with the government moving in and curtailing freedoms for the sake of security. These days, of course, we know better.

 

 
Jim Knipfel is an only somewhat surly writer living in Brooklyn. He wrote three well-received memoirs before the age of forty (a move he describes as “asinine”). He has also written three previous darkly-comic novels (The Buzzing, Noogie’s Time to Shine, and Unplugging Philco) and a collection of seriously demented fairy tales (These Children Who Come at You with Knives). For two decades, he has been writing an autobiographical column called Slackjaw, which can be read at ElectronPress.com.
 
Knipfel’s latest novel, The Blow-Off, tells the story of Hank Kalabander, who writes the crime blotter for a Brooklyn pennysaver called The Hornet. Like all the best crime blotters, Hank’s work is more about insulting stupid victims and even stupider criminals than it is about actual crime reporting. When a drunk claims to have been mugged by “a hulking, hairy beast who smells really bad,” Hank suggests the perpetrator is none other than the legendary man-beast popularly known as “Bigfoot.” Apparently, he has fallen on hard times since they cancelled The Six-Million Dollar.
 
It was a throwaway joke and it should have ended there but, inevitably, other sightings follow of the monster quickly dubbed the “Gowanus Beast,” named after the foul-smelling body of water where the first sighting occurred. The Beast is soon taking the blame for everything from scraped-knees to robberies and assaults to that old stand-by, a stolen pie. Beast sightings are reported all over the city in every borough. (Exactly where does Bigfoot keep his subway tokens, anyway?) What began as a joke in a sarcastic, barely read crime blotter turns into a straight story on television, radio, in the newspapers and, of course, the internet. As press coverage increases, so does the panic. Street militias are formed. Idiots arm themselves and, naturally, end up shooting other armed idiots. Random people find themselves being accused of being the Beast, especially homeless people who quite often meet the rather vague description of the Beast, “hairy and bad-smelling.” Then the government steps in to “restore order.” Well, we all know what happens when the government decides to “restore order.”
 
I’ve read a lot of reviews describing this book or that as a “post 9/11 novel.” I’m not even certain what that is supposed to mean. To my mind it should mean a book that could not have been written or published prior to 9/11, at least not in the same form. The Blow-Off is the first novel I’ve read that really qualifies. Even if this book could have been written, it never would have been published. No publisher would have read this book and thought something like this could actually happen. The very idea that an entire city, especially one as hardened as New York City, would succumb to such increasing levels of panic and paranoia is ridiculous. The populace of the Big Apple, famous for being fearless and intolerant, would certainly never put up with the government moving in and curtailing freedoms for the sake of security. These days, of course, we know better. The metaphor is not subtle, nor should it be. I read this book and had no doubt it would happen exactly like this. We’ve seen it all before.
 
Most of the book is about Hank Kalabander’s hopeless crusade to convince the people all around him that they are acting like idiots. This kind of thing can’t help but be funny and, in Knipfel’s hands, it is often hilarious. About two thirds of the way through the book, however, the reader’s reaction is subtly altered. At least mine was. It’s still funny and the tone never changes, but now we start seeing some of the more serious repercussions of the madness. A little girl, terrified of the monster, finds the perfect hiding place. An angry mob finally catches up to what they think is the Beast. It is a perfect example of the old “still think it’s funny?” routine, a joke that’s gone too far. Anyone who has read Knipfel’s columns or other books knows he is a master of this move.
 
In addition to being a searing (yet funny) indictment of mob-rule and the willingness of Americans to abandon liberties for the sake of imagined security, Knipfel also takes a few well-aimed potshots at the rampant plagiarism that seems to plague the internet age. A young reporter from a rival newspaper, The Eagle, steals Hank’s original story and then fans the flames of paranoia to further her own career. Plagiarism has been around as long as the written word but, until the internet came about, most plagiarists had the decency to deny it when they got caught. These days, most people stealing from writers seem genuinely puzzled when you suggest this kind of thing is wrong.
 
Don’t let this review fool you. The Blow-Off is not nearly as political as I’m making it sound. Chances are, you won’t even realize just how smart this book is until it’s over. I cannot recommend The Blow-Off, or any of Jim Knipfel’s other writings, enough. | Gordon Hopkins

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