BUZZING by Jim Knipfel
Review by Charlie Dickinson
hilarious, original, and unsettling novel.'
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
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
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
Charlie Dickinson review
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