In this rare interview, the reclusive author of eight books sits down with Men’s Journal to discuss his new novel, the deadbeat as protagonist, and the neglected art of crime blotters.
“I’m looking for the blind guy with the hat,” I tell the tall twentysomething washing glasses behind the bar.
He’s right in front of me. With a respectable haircut and his wide-brimmed gray fedora out of sight on the bar, my former New York Press colleague fades right into the background. Which is pretty much how Jim Knipfel likes it.
I’ve taken the R train to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to talk to my old friend about his fourth novel, The Blow-off (Simon & Schuster), which was released this week. In addition to the novels, Knipfel, 46, has published three memoirs (all before the age of 40 — something he now calls “asinine”), which explore the onset of blindness via degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa, his six months in the loony bin, and demons — mostly inner. There’s also a collection of demented fairy tales, These Children Who Come at You With Knives (S&S, 2010). Since 1987, Knipfel has been writing the weekly column Slackjaw, which first ran in Philadelphia’s Welcomat, moving to New York Press in 1993 and online, to Electron Press, in 2006. —Kate Crane
Your previous novels have involved a Godzilla-related conspiracy theory, a Jersey City ATM heist, and a dystopian war on digital totalitarianism. Where do you go in The Blow-off?
The Blow-off is about a man in his late 50s, Hank Kalabander, who has never been able to hold a job much in his life. But he finally stumbles upon the perfect position — writing the weekly crime blotter for a Brooklyn-based pennysaver. Kalabander takes a fairly cynical attitude toward crime and the stories he runs: He has a grand philosophy about the literature of crime blotters, but as far as the stories themselves go, he’s generally just as cruel to the victims as he is to the perpetrators. One day a story comes in about a drunk in Carroll Gardens who claims that he was assaulted on his way home at 3 a.m. by, essentially, Big Foot, over by the Gowanus Canal. And Hank Kalabander, he just runs that story as is… and forgets about it, as he forgets about everything. Much to his dismay, the story’s picked up, first by a blogger, and then it starts spreading: to a tabloid, and then to another tabloid. Before he knows it, this stupid story that he hasn’t thought a thing about has sparked a citywide case of mass hysteria. So he, along with the help of a sideshow-impresario friend of his, tries desperately to set the record straight. But he’s just not very good at that.
What drew you to writing about Brooklyn and the Gowanus Canal?
I always wanted to write a novel that focused on the Gowanus somehow. I have a long fascination with it. Just the fact that within walking distance of where I used to live in Park Slope was the most polluted body of water in America. I used to visit a friend who lived half a block off the Gowanus, and he had all kinds of stories: about men in hazmat suits, and strange lights, and packs of wild Gowanus dogs.
Wild Gowanus dogs?
Oh, they exist. There are packs of wild Gowanus dogs down there.
Hank Kalabander makes me think of Roscoe Baragon, the main character in your first novel, The Buzzing. He’s a newspaperman too.
In many ways — and I was conscious of this — The Blow-off is the flip side, the mirror image, to The Buzzing. In The Buzzing you had a single, possibly insane man in the midst of a very sane and boring world trying to convince them of this ridiculous conspiracy. In The Blow-off, you have an entire world that’s gone insane, with one possibly sane man trying to convince them that they’re just being stupid.
Throughout your fiction you depict a particular kind of American man.
You can put a couple of very neat labels on the central character in most of my novels. “Loser” is first and foremost. But loser in different ways. These men tend to be older, they tend to be overweight, and I guess you could call them curmudgeonly — I put a lot of myself into these characters. And they’re all very individualistic, usually to their detriment. They are people who — whether it’s Roscoe, whether it’s Hank Kalabander or Noogie [Noogie’s Time to Shine], even the nebbish, Philco [Unplugging Philco] — find themselves standing alone in the world. If you were to meet them in person, you’d find they’re unpleasant people: They’re snide, they’re loud, they’re cynical. Yet if I can take such characters and make them somehow sympathetic, no matter how abysmal they may be as general human beings, then they’re something.
Like the protagonist of The Blow-off, you wrote a crime blotter. That was my most favorite thing to read in New York Press.
You know, I had been bugging them, and bugging them, and bugging them to let me do a crime blotter. Finally, under Jeff Koyen and Alex Zaitchik, they let me start doing it. The best crime stories are never on the front page of the Post or the Daily News. And they’re nowhere in the Times. The best crime stories are in the blotter. ’Cuz on the blotter, see, each individual 150-, 250-word blotter item is like a miniature novel. It’s a perfect American literary form. You have heroes and villains; you have an arc; you have conflict; in many cases you have a resolution. You have everything you need right there, in these convenient, bite-size pieces. It’s a sadly neglected form. A lot of the items in The Blow-off are based on actual events.
Have any crime-blotter items from New York Press stayed with you?
Oh, yes. One of my favorites: The police got a call to a high-rise in the Bronx. These two cops show up. As they’re walking toward the building’s front doors, a bowling ball falls from the 18th floor and smashes into the sidewalk right in front of them! And so they go running into the building, and somehow they locate the apartment in this big high-rise. And they find a guy in his 60s out on the balcony… holding another bowling ball.
The Blow-off is your eighth book, and you’ve been writing the Slackjaw column for more than two decades. Can you tell me about becoming a writer — and also staying a writer?
The first part was an accident; the second part was panic. I’d been in grad school. I was going to be a physicist. Then I was going to be a philosopher, because I was no good at physics. Then I decided I didn’t want to be an academic. And so, well, I left and they threw me out at the same time, so it worked. I went to Philly with the idea of just being a bum, and I had been there, very successfully being a bum, for maybe a couple of weeks. One day I picked up two local free weeklies out of boredom and read them. And in that hubris of youth — I was 22 at the time — I just said, I can do better than this. I’d never written anything, other than school papers. Never had any intention of writing anything. But I thought… Well, I can do better than this. So I sat down, wrote a little story, and turned it in to both papers. When I called the first one, the editor there just called me names and yelled at me. But then the second editor, Derek Davis at the Welcomat, liked it. So he picked me up. I started writing the column, and I’ve been doing it ever since, mostly because I have no other saleable skills. If I want to pay the bills every month, there’s that panic — I need to keep doing this. Next year will be the 25th anniversary of the Slackjaw column. Every week for 25 years.
Who do you read these days?
In terms of reading, everything is on audio for me now. Right now I’m listening to an audio version of Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. That sounds all hoity-toity… But it’s such a glorious book. I had forgotten how astonishing it is. Other things I have read recently that I really liked: I listened to two very, very different works by Nick Baker: Human Smoke, which is his WWII book, and then The Anthologist, a novel, which is really good. There are still so many things that are not available on audio. It’s hard to find James Thurber. There is some Beckett — not all the Beckett I would like. Henry Miller is hard, and the recordings that are out there are miserable. These things are so damned expensive, too. Most of the writers I really love can’t be found on audio. You aren’t going to find Céline on audio… You can find him in French, but it’s unbelievably expensive, and I don’t know French. Gravity’s Rainbow is taking me a very long time — I have it on 55 discs.
Thomas Pynchon has been lauding your work since Slackjaw the book first came out. How did the Knipfel-Pynchon connection begin?
When a book nearing the final stages of production, you sit down with your editor and make up a wish list of people you want to get blurbs from. We sent out 20 or 25 copies of Slackjaw to various people. We didn’t hear a peep. Not a whisper, from any of them. So we had one left. And my editor at the time called and said, “We have one left. Who should we send it to?” And I said, why don’t you send one to Pynchon. And he said, “Well, it’s throwing one away. Nothing’s gonna happen.” And I said, “Then throw one away and mail it to him anyway. We aren’t getting anything else from anybody.” We mailed it to his agent, and we pretty much forgot about it. The day before Thanksgiving, 1997, I was at the Press. My editor called me, and he could barely speak. I’m trying to find out what the deal is, and all he could say was, “We just got a fax. I’m going to send it over to you.” And he faxed it over. And then I couldn’t speak for days after that. The blurb that Pynchon wrote was astonishing. And then he did another one for me for The Buzzing. He’s been extraordinarily kind for reasons I cannot fathom. I don’t get it, but I’m deeply, deeply grateful.
We often ask people for the Men’s Journal Survival Skills column if they’ve ever cheated death. In Slackjaw and your other two memoirs, you recount multiple brushes with death. What’s the most memorable?
Well, let’s see. There was that overdose… where I was dead. I was dead, and I was in hell. That’s all in Quitting the Nairobi Trio. I woke up in an ICU in Minneapolis and spent a week and a half there and then was sent down to the psych ward for six months. Six of the finest months I’ve ever spent anywhere.
Best advice you’ve ever received?
I was 18 years old, and I’d been sent to a shrink. After meeting with me for about six months, the shrink said, “Jim, you are not a horrible person. But the world is a terrible, horrible place. So you’ve got to take all of that anger, and all of that rage that’s inside of you, and stop trying to destroy yourself. Turn it outside and try and destroy the world instead.” That was the best advice I’ve ever received.
How does a man best face his fears?
Live in a basement and never leave. Except to go to the bar. That’s what I do.