New York Press staff writer Jim Knipfel has been losing his sight by degrees all his life, and he’s been writing about himself for newspapers for the last decade or so. Billed as the
story of his blindness, his book is really a disjointed memoir pieced together from his columns. A storyteller in the barroom tradition (words like “gewgaws” and “catywhompus” turn up a lot), Knipfel’s the guy who wants to tell you about how much his day has sucked, and if he inevitably overstates his jokes, he’s nonetheless
entertaining in small doses.
Slackjaw never quite finds
a direction, though. Knipfel
wanders through his life anecdote by anecdote, rambling on about his self-destructive impulses, collegiate pranks,
petty larceny, drunken excesses, slacker jobs, and pretty much everything vaguely weird that’s ever happened to him. He
identifies with the narrator of
Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, though his eagerness to milk a good yarn out of everything makes him seem less despairing than grumpy. There’s some fine black farce in his faux-suicidal bravado— his response to a letter-writer’s threat to kill him in two weeks is “I was frustrated that he was making me wait that long”— but eventually it comes off like the kind of tough-guy pose that’s really a plea for pity.
About a third of Slackjaw suggests the better book it might have been, focused on Knipfel’s progressive vision loss and his bitter preparations for blindness. Here, he gets a lot more mileage out of his smartass observations and pungent sketches: shopping for a cane, training to survive a fall onto subway tracks, taking “Blind Man classes.” These stories are more original than the tall tales about his goofy punk band, and they’re better written, relying on the grim comedy of the situation rather than sledgehammer hyperbole. Knipfel’s still using the exaggerated language of old-man bars, but the way he fleshes out his absurd world from the few visual details he can make out gives the end of his book the dry poignancy the rest of it gropes for.