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THE BUZZING by Jim Knipfel

Review by Charlie Dickinson

...'a hilarious, original, and unsettling novel.'
Vintage Books, 2003, 263 pp., ISBN: 1-4000-3183-4

Several years ago, Jim Knipfel's debut publication, SLACKJAW, joined Elizabeth Wurtzel's PROZAC NATION, Susanna Kaysen's GIRL, INTERRUPTED, and others for a 90s boomlet in the literature of personal disaster. Knipfel's memoir detailed a young life wracked by substance abuse, suicide attempts, rages induced by a brain lesion, and the incurable loss of sight brought on by retinitis pigmentosa. Knipfel was legally blind by age thirty. And yet despite Job-like suffering, he eventually found salvation and a livelihood, writing newspaper columns in Philadelphia and later, New York. While Knipfel's memoir didn't garner Wurtzel's notoriety or Kaysen's movie deal, SLACKJAW did receive praise from no less a literary touchstone than Thomas Pynchon, who also adds unqualified kudos for Knipfel's initial foray into fiction.

THE BUZZING is a hilarious, original, and unsettling novel. It opens with newspaper reporter Roscoe Baragon taking a phone call from a hysterical man who claims to have been kidnapped by the State of Alaska. For Baragon, such phone calls happen daily. Middle-aged Baragon has long conceded the plums of investigative journalism to the Young Turks around him. Not that his editor and nemesis Montgomery gives him much choice.
Baragon accepts his marginal kook beat and contentedly writes articles Montgomery sometimes publishes. News of the weird. Baragon has his finger on the pulse of paranoia. He's happy witnessing for the nutcases of the city.
Away from work, Baragon lives life on the narrow. He shares an apartment with cat Hedora. For recreation, he watches videos from a definitive collection of Japanese horror films. For a social life, he meets friend Emily at an empty bar. Emily works as a morgue pathologist and though occasionally she might have to tuck drunk Roscoe in bed, they are only drinking buddies.

Roscoe's sure he's on the Big Story when Emily reveals that a corpse brought to the morgue, a deceased homeless man found in a nearby park, set off Geiger counters. While the plot of THE BUZZING is not unlike one of Baragon's grade-B horror flicks, it's not gratuitously so. In a crafted story line, Knipfel properly reflects a wellspring of fine paranoia Baragon taps. A space station crashes to earth with possibly mutant life forms. Neptunian aliens abduct vulnerable people. Earthquakes happen in unexpected places. Whales disappear. That and more comes together in a crescendo of a finale.
But THE BUZZING is about more than an apparently cockamamie plot.
Knipfel gives us a remarkable character in Roscoe Baragon, a journalist taking on the craziness of those he uses as the sources for his stories. The comedic tone, the high seriousness of intent invite comparison with MISS LONELYHEARTS by Nathanael West, another novel that featured a newspaperman who began to identify too closely with the suffering of those who reached out to him. While West wrote the character of Miss Lonelyhearts (the advice columnist's pseudonym) with Christ-like allusions, Knipfel's Baragon comes across much more directly.

If Nathanael West were alive in 2003--when daily events are shaped by "spin control" and "managed expectations"--he might agree with Knipfel's cynical take on what, if anything, a journalist knows. As Baragon puts it, experience has taught him only two rules in journalism:
"1. There are some stories that, for whatever reason, simply cannot be told.
2. Everyone's a liar."
Those two assumptions undergird the uncompromised story of THE BUZZING. In keeping with the tone of the novel, the whole of the author bio note reads, "Jim Knipfel lives in Brooklyn. That much he knows."

Knipfel works his premise of paranoia with an adroit and masterful comedic touch. Read THE BUZZING for a novel in the tradition of Nathanael West with the Pynchon Seal of Approval. One impressive fiction debut, and that, for this reviewer, is not open to question.

© Charlie Dickinson April 2003

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