June 18, 2000
The Mayor of Hostile City, part 2
by Sam Adams
part 1 | part 2
Theres never been a shortage of angry young men looking for new ways to piss people off, and history is littered with the corpses of writers who never got beyond thumbing their noses at Mom and Dad. But over the years, Slackjaw developed into something more than a way for Knipfel to offend people hed never meet in person. Knipfel continued to rant, but his screeds grew deeper, more poisonous, taking on an almost metaphysical loathing for the world around him. And the columns autobiographical quotient continued to expand, especially once Knipfel moved to Brooklyn in 1991 and could no longer cover local arts. (The move also ended Knipfels Downscale Diner restaurant review column, although he did make the suggestion that he could continue to review restaurants in Brooklyn and simply not mention that they werent located in Philadelphia.) By the time he moved to the New York Press in 1994, Knipfel had gone from assaulting his audience to inviting them to bear witness to his unfailingly bizarre life. In Slackjaw, he writes, "As time passed I was writing about myself more than the things I was supposed to be reviewing. That was unfair, I thought, so I stopped talking about other people and things altogether, and just told stories about the adventures Id gotten into that week."
"You cant stay that angry that long," Knipfel reflects, "and if you do you get real, real boring. In my case, the anger burned itself out. I couldnt do it anymore. Its like speed. I did speed for a long time, but you reach a point where your body cant handle it anymore. Your brain starts demanding that your body do things it simply cannot do: You cant move that fast. It was the same thing with [writing]. I was still angry, annoyed, bitter, but it didnt burn so hot anymore."
Knipfel says hes "embarrassed" by those early columns, and cringes when I read him a brief passage; for him, theyre full of obvious influences (Charles Bukowski, Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson) and typical early-20s angst. "I listen around the office where I am now," he says, "and I hear 23-year-old kids, so full of themselves, so confident of their own abilities, spouting exactly the same things that I was saying back then. Thats what embarrasses me, that I was no different. No matter how much I would like to think that I was, I was no different."
Davis disagrees. "Ive had writers I agonized over for 10 years who couldnt put a sentence together like [Jim]. Hes a natural talent. A lot of [his Slackjaw writing] was off the wall, a lot of it was shocking. Its weird: It was deliberately set up to shock, but it worked anyway."
And despite the discomfort looking back at his old writing causes him, Knipfel still speaks with pride of the hate mail he got. "Im always under the impression that people feel more if theyre angry than if theyre happy. Ive never trusted happy people. Part of my thinking when I was trying to piss people off was, Im showing them what its like to be alive. That was a very very small part of what I was thinking at the time, but it was one of my excuses. I was tickled pink with [hate mail]: the angrier the better. If you made somebody wanna kill you for something you think, that was Mission Accomplished."
By Knipfels account, hed never thought about writing professionally until Greg Sandow suggested it. At the time, Knipfel was a grad student in the University of Minnesotas Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society program, writing papers on Eraserhead, Elvis Presley and the Mentors (the sludge-metal band whose obscene lyrics were a highlight of Tipper Gores campaign against filth in rock) for a mostly unappreciative academic audience. But Sandow, one of his professors, also happened to be the new music critic for the Village Voice. After Knipfel decided to move to Philadelphia with his then-girlfriend later his wife, now his ex-wife whod been accepted as a graduate student at Penn, Sandow suggested Knipfel try writing for the Voice. (He did publish several pieces there, but says working for the Voice was "a nightmare.")
Knipfel figured he might as well submit to Philly papers as well, since a quick look at the local alternative weeklies convinced him that he couldnt be any worse than the people they already employed. "I hadnt even considered [writing] before," he recalls, "but I had this one mans opinion that maybe I was skilled at something in this world. Id done a lot of weird things and told a lot of stories to people in bars, so I just sat down and wrote up a couple of those stories, and thats what I ended up turning in, under the guise of being a record review."
In fact, the five-page review of the newest Rollins Band album was mostly devoted to recounting Knipfels memories of "schizophrenics I have known," a digression which was none too appealing to the City Paper editor who responded to Knipfels submission. ("They looked like they paid more, so I sent it to them first.") "Oh, she tore into me," he recalls with a smile on his face. "I was insensitive, the readers wouldnt appreciate the attitude I took toward schizophrenics, and she didnt either." Knipfel had better luck with Davis, who liked the review well enough to ask Knipfel to come by the office and talk about future Welcomat assignments. (Although not, it should be noted, enough to publish it.)
His Iggy Pop review was published shortly thereafter, and soon Knipfel was dropping by the Welcomats Ludlow Street office to chat with Davis nearly every day. "Most of the time when I was in Philly I was unemployed, and I had nothing to get me out of the apartment," Knipfel recalls. "So I would make up an excuse to go over and see Derek for a bit. He was not at all what I expected when I first met him. He was just this wise little man. The very first time I went up there, we sat down and talked about music for two hours."
From a distance, Knipfel and Davis couldnt make a more unlikely pair: In his trademark fedora and overcoat, Knipfel looks like a seedy alley-sloucher straight out of film noir; Davis, who comes down the stairs of his Powelton Village house in bare feet and a "Save the Mountain Gorilla" T-shirt, seems every bit the 60s holdover. (Knipfel describes him as a "troll," although given Davis wry sense of humor, "gnome" might be slightly more appropriate.) Despite their cosmetic disparity and the 30-year difference in age, though, the two have forged a friendship as profound as it is unlikely.
"Within a few months," Davis recalls, "we became firm friends in a way Ive actually never been friends with anybody before. He would come in and wed just sit and talk for 15 or 20 minutes; that would be the high point of both our days. Im a depressive too, a depressive, anxiety-ridden person, and [I admire] how hes dealt with that so much better than I ever have, that he can turn it into humor, that he can turn it into a way of making the world manageable."
Though Knipfel frequently mentions Davis in his Slackjaw columns, hes not the type to wax poetic about the importance of their friendship, except in rare cases like the acknowledgments to Slackjaw, where he writes "Derek Davis, my dear friend and editor stood up for me against maniacal publishers, accepted me as one of his family, and taught me how to write."
Going one step further, Quitting the Nairobi Trio is dedicated to Davis, "compadre and goofball, who always liked that story," though Knipfel didnt breathe a word of the dedication until he sent Davis the first copy of Nairobis press run. When he found out, Davis says he was "touched beyond belief. I dont think anyone has ever done such a kind thing for me before."
From recalling an out-of-place Davis waving his arms to Killdozer at a long-ago Khyber Pass show to reminiscing about the weekend they spent drunk in a Seaside Heights motel room covering a clown convention, Knipfel speaks of Davis with fondness and even reverence. Its almost unbelievable that a man with such a sociopathic print persona could manifest such tenderness. But talk to his friends and a far gentler image emerges than Knipfels caustic self-portraits. As Worden, whos known Knipfel since his "rant days," points out, "A lot of people who write like that are like that. Theyre really acid-tongued and cynical and nasty, and [Jims] absolutely not like that. Hes just the most generous, sweet person."
"Underneath the tough-guy exterior and the cranky old man," says Strausbaugh, "theres just a little softie."
According to Davis, Knipfel is as devoted to those inside his inner circle as he is hostile to those outside. "The thing is, he doesnt like most people, but if he does like you, he is utterly loyal, loyal beyond anyone I have ever known. Hes somebody, for a good friend he would lay down his life; I have no doubt about it. But if he doesnt like you, he doesnt give a fuck."
(Those selective friendships have paid off, too: Hearing that he was moving, Worden introduced Knipfel to fellow New Yorker Laura Lindgren, the longtime designer of the Mütter Museums calendar. Lindgren, along with Ken Swezey, runs Blast Books, and introduced Knipfel to Strausbaugh, whose had several books published by Blast. Seems even if you hate most people, its still all about who you know.)
"Going blind hasnt bothered me so much Its another thing to deal with, like madness or drunkenness or crime or poverty or the realization that Ive hurt people around me over the years. All of those things, in one way or another, will be with me forever, near the surface. Going blind, curiously, has been my salvation from many of these things or my karmic retribution." from Slackjaw
In writing about someone like Knipfel, you become acutely aware how many of the terms we use to talk about writing are really visual metaphors; we talk about how writers "see" things, "the writers eye," their "gaze." Its a fact that was hardly lost on Slackjaws reviewers, who conjured all sorts of cheap sight puns to praise the book, the most egregious of which was this gem from Entertainment Weekly: "Knipfel may be blind, but his artistic vision is as stunning as a sunset over the Brooklyn Bridge." (Its not only insensitive but inaccurate, since Knipfel can still see well enough to cross the street or read type off a computer screen.) Still, its hard not to notice how vivid the visual detail is in Knipfels writing, especially given that Knipfels eyes have essentially been failing since birth.
"His ability to paint graphic pictures is astonishing," Davis points out. "Especially for someones whos never had good eyesight, his visual imagery is amazing. I used to walk down the street with him his eyes werent as bad then and he would pick up all this shit in the street, see things all around that I would miss."
Davis stops short of drawing a direct connection between Knipfels eyesight and his writing, but Knipfel doesnt. "I think its because of that; I have to hang onto what I can. The thing about that whole period in Nairobi, in the nuthouse, is that things are burned into your memory when you come to extremes: extreme experience, extreme situations. I can still picture everything every detail of that ward, those people. So I hang onto what I can. Its getting harder and harder these days, and more recent writing, most of the details are oral."
Theres no question that losing his eyesight has affected Knipfels writing, and his life, and not all for the bad. "At a certain point," Strausbaugh recalls, "the one eye fritzed out on him, and since then hes been writing a lot more about the blindness and how it affects his life. Hes been writing more about the nuthouse stuff, too, and I think he writes about it more sensitively than he used to. As a young guy, there was a certain amount of bluster there; now theres more self-investigation in the stories."
"I honestly think that in some funny way that losing his sight knowing he was definitely going to go blind was almost comforting," Davis ventures. "Its changed his outlook on life. Hes calmed an incredible amount. Hes still anxious, hes still depressive and always going to be that way. But the ultimate panic went out of it. Its like he wanted to stay alive because hed be so fucking curious what it would be like to be really blind."
Strausbaugh echoes the sentiment with a dose of Knipfel-esque humor: "I think hes become a more mature individual, and I think as hes been physically challenged not to give him any cripple credit but hes become a more introspective writer, as would anybody. All those things add up to he tells better stories in a better way."
According to Davis, hes even cut back his drinking. "Last time I was up there, there was dust all over the Wild Turkey bottles. Everybody comes in and gives him a bottle of Wild Turkey, but they dont know he doesnt drink it anymore."
If Knipfel hasnt softened, it seems hes definitely slowed down. "I dont think Im any stronger," he says. "I think Im weaker. It grinds you down. After years of whatever, it grinds you down and wears you out. Im not suicidal anymore. Im just tired." And success certainly hasnt gone to his head. "Nowadays," he admits, "I look around both at what I do and what other people do, and have a much lower opinion of myself and a much higher opinion of hacks. About a year or two ago I interviewed Harry Crews, and he was giving me the boilerplate interview he gives everybody, but at one point he stopped, and said, You know, I always thought Id be better than I am. That very much holds true for me."
Friends whove read Quitting the Nairobi Trio seem to agree that Knipfel is poised for even more acclaim; its less glib than Slackjaw, flows better, and has a more consistent funhouse mirror tone. Of course, Knipfel cant stand the success he has now: He never answers his phone, disconnected the buzzer to his apartment, dislikes having his picture taken or being interviewed, and especially hates being recognized on the street, mostly because it makes it near-impossible for him to observe from the shadows. "To this day," he laments, "I regret not deciding to pull a Pynchon or a Salinger when I was 21."
Who knows: Maybe someday Knipfel will vanish from the earth, living off his book proceeds on some remote island. Hell slouch along the beach, the sun beating down on his black hat and overcoat, lashing out at coconuts and sand crabs and hating the waves for crashing on the beach. Maybe some castaway will wash ashore, spot the reclusive writer and yell, "Hey, Slackjaw!," and Knipfel will loathe the intruder with a passion that makes his ears ring. Hell pour the poison out onto the page, and his writing will keep getting better, and well keep reaping the benefits. Who knew a reclusive, half-blind sociopath could make so many people happy?
A selection of Jim Knipfels Slackjaw columns is available online at www.missioncreep.com/slackjaw.
part 1 | part 2