Literature

Zany paranoia and bitter social commentary

Jim Knipfel’s new novel combines the pulpy and the political

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Brian Francis Slattery

Jim Knipfel made a name for himself about a decade ago with a trio of memoirs—Slackjaw, Quitting the Nairobi Trio and Ruining It for Everybody—in which his gradual blindness from retinitis pigmentosa may be the least interesting element of a story filled with insanity and a kind of sordid ecstasy. Knipfel has led an extraordinary life, and looks back on it with an astonishing mix of dark humor, unflinching observation and utter lack of self-pity. Beginning in 2003, however, he began publishing novels instead; as Knipfel himself said of his memoirs in a 2007 interview, “I had three of them out before I was 40, and I think that’s just asinine.”

His first novel, The Buzzing, hewed pretty close to the tone and subject matter of his memoirs, telling the story of a reporter who is either uncovering a vast conspiracy or going crazy. His second novel, Noogie’s Time to Shine, showed us a glimpse of something more. In it, our protagonist, ATM maintenance man Ned “Noogie” Krapczak, pulls off the simple yet ingenious crime of stealing millions of dollars from the machines he services, gradually, 20 bucks at a time. When the bank finally catches on to what he’s doing, he flees, setting off a plot that combines road trip and true-crime novel. Pulpy and gritty, it also contains moments of keen poignancy, as when, somewhere in the South, Noogie finds himself at a carnival, and the sense that he has both escaped and is now exiled from the world crashes over him. It also has a midstory plot twist—well, perhaps more like a reinvention—that disoriented some readers but devastated this one. Amid all the mayhem, Noogie has something to say about the people left behind by what was then our country’s runaway prosperity; one by one, Knipfel’s characters are heading toward realizing, if they don’t know it already, that whoever’s been dreaming the American Dream doesn’t seem to have them in mind.

The Details

Unplugging Philco
Three and a half stars
Jim Knipfel
Simon & Schuster, $14.
Amazon: Unplugging Philco

Using a pulp sensibility to marry zany paranoia and bitter social commentary thus has become Knipfel’s home territory. But in Unplugging Philco, Knipfel brings the heady stew of his first two novels to a full boil and comes up with a dystopian satire that is both his funniest and saddest book yet. The New York City of Philco is an oppressive surveillance state that punishes you if you don’t watch what you say and encourages neighbors to spy on neighbors while also putting the entire country—its land and people—up for sale. Parks that used to be public land are now lined with billboards and filling with condos, and every time you make a phone call, you have to listen to an ad before they’ll put you through. Subtle Knipfel ain’t, but subtlety is overrated; and page for page, Knipfel’s dark cartoon of a world strikes a nerve in our own. The plot concerns Wally Philco, an unassuming man who finds himself on the wrong side from the thought police, not to mention his wife, one too many times. Fed up and wanting simply to be left alone, he embarks on a campaign to go off the grid—to find the blind spot, as Knipfel puts it—only to find himself the object of affection of a group of would-be revolutionaries seeking not only to unplug from the regime, but also to overthrow it. The story gets even crazier from there, but just when it no longer makes any sense, it suddenly does.

It’s tempting to read Unplugging Philco solely as a parody of the Bush administration and its policies, but it digs deeper than that. It asks not only why Bush and those he put in charge of things did what they did, but also why we let them—why we were willing to trade our freedoms for security even when it became clear, first, that the people running the security apparatus weren’t all that good at it, and second, that abuses were being committed in our name. As we move away from the Bush years, it’s natural to want to believe wholeheartedly the popular narrative that the country has remade itself. But as long as we have people like Jim Knipfel around, we have to be more honest with ourselves than that—and hopefully more willing to speak out the next time around.

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