"Slackjaw," by Jim Knipfel. Tarcher/Putnam. 235 pages...

Book Brief

April 25, 1999|By David Daley | David Daley,Knight Ridder/Tribune

"Slackjaw," by Jim Knipfel. Tarcher/Putnam. 235 pages. $22.95 pages.

Jim Knipfel has slowly gone blind over his 30 years, the light gradually fading from his eyes because he was born with a rare degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which attacks the rods and cones in the retina that make vision possible.

Blindness, Knipfel says, is ultimately just another thing to deal with. Indeed, worse things have happened to him. Like madness. During his 20s, Knipfel also learned that his suicidal depression and emotional free-fall was the result of an inoperable brain lesion. Then there's his drinking problem, poverty and a failed marriage.

"Going blind, curiously, has been my salvation from many of these things, or my karmic retribution," Knipfel writes, near the end of his new memoir "Slackjaw," also the title of his regular column in the alternative weekly New York Press. "It's just one more float in the weirdness parade I have been marching in my whole life."

In an interview, Knipfel said that "just deal with it" hasn't always been his philosophy.

"That's why I ended up trying to off myself so many times," he says with a laugh. "After surviving 12 suicide attempts, I came to the conclusion that I simply could not be killed. It had something to do with foolish, hurtful hubris, which sounds like the sequel to silly human pride. That sense faded very quickly as well. But suddenly I wasn't interested in killing myself anymore. So I decided I might as well deal with it. It's made me much less insufferable."

New Yorkers have followed Knipfel's battles with blindness, bottles, madness and marriage -- not to mention trips to the psych ward, knock-down bar fights and hysterical and self-loathing stories about his Midwestern childhood for several years in the New York Press. "Slackjaw" strings together many of those columns, introducing the country to Knipfel's uniquely unsparing and unsentimental world view, and what novelist Thomas Pynchon describes as his "amiably deranged sense of humor."

Television could be next, though the networks probably aren't ready for Knipfel's wonderfully absurdist tales of beating up Moonies and getting beaten up at punk-rock shows; causing trouble by founding the "Nihilist Workers Party" in Madison, Wis.; insane neighbors who send daily letters to Dan Rather; Brooklyn bartenders; and a whole array of neurologists, psychotherapists and optometrists who don't know what to make of their patient.

On his book tour last month, Knipfel met with New Line Television producers who want to turn "Slackjaw" into an ABC sitcom. He's skeptical, at best. "Recent shows prove that people are ready and eager for edgier material," one producer told Knipfel. "Like 'South Park' and 'Ally McBeal.' " Right, that edgy Ally.

"I told them I wouldn't want to do it unless they did two things," Knipfel says. "I might agree if they could get Abe Vigoda to star. Or if they agree to make it a musical animated series. Apart from that, I don't think TV and I would get along very well.

"Cable would be a different animal. But they're talking about ABC! What are they going to do?" Knipfel says with more than a trace of bemusement. "They'd have to end with some sort of happy revelation every week. I'd end up saying, 'heavens to Betsy' a lot."

Nevertheless, there is something bizarrely uplifting about Knipfel's story, even if it's not exactly tailor-made for a laugh track. Bouncing from one dead-end job to another, through suicide attempts, crime sprees and craziness, Knipfel managed to pull his life together with great humor and a renewed sense of priorities.

He's working on a new book now, about his time in a Minnesota mental hospital. "It's not a horror story about conditions inside mental institutions. It's actually sort of funny," he said. "I've put up with much worse than going blind. Sure, it's a pain in the ass. But I can still write, go to bars, what have you. I'm a simple man. That's all I need."

That, and music. Knipfel just scored a bootleg CD of Elvis Presley's final concert, a somehow inspiringly incoherent Indianapolis performance just weeks before his death.

"It's a nightmare," he says. "The singing is beautiful, but he insists on talking between songs. When he does that spoken part in the middle of 'Are You Lonesome Tonight,' he just goes completely out of his mind. I'm very happy about that."

Pub Date: 04/25/99

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