The Knockout Queen

The Knockout Queen

This book is so wild.

When I was a freshman in college, second semester I took an English course entitled “The Picaresque Novel.” Now if you look up “picaresque” in the Oxford dictionary, it says “relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero.” I’m not sure every book we read in that class fit that description, but one thing is for sure, the main character in each book was different, one of a kind, didn’t fit in, was a leader of misfits or…

Now at Middlebury, 45% of the students came from prep school. They had it all wired, they knew things I did not. Like “Celtic” is pronounced with a “k” sound as opposed to the “c” of the Boston basketball team, and that you didn’t have to read all the books and you never had to turn a paper in on time.

As for the last…I eventually behaved that way too. You’ve got to be motivated to write a paper. Oh, that’s one more thing, there were no objective tests at Middlebury, no true/false or multiple choice, they were all three hour essay tests, and you had to write tons of papers. So, I’d feel the pressure the night before and write my paper, but…

It was a different era. Oh, how I wish I went to college in the computer age. Not only would I not be isolated in nowhere Vermont, I’d be able to print as opposed to type, or maybe just e-mail the finished result to the professor. You see that was the biggest challenge, when you were done scribbling, you had to type your composition. And although I studied touch-typing in high school, maybe the most valuable course I took, my typing was not yet perfect and if you made too many mistakes you had to start over and it was a real pain in the ass.

As for not having to read all the books…

That was wisdom, that was genius.

Some courses would assign you a thousand page book a week. Really. How could you do any other schoolwork, how could you even finish that book? And all this hoopla about online learning…I learned a hell of a lot more out of the classroom than in it. That’s why you go to college, to meet different kinds of people, to grow up, most of what you learn in the classroom is close to worthless, especially today when they teach you business crap as opposed to the liberal arts. Which is all to say I don’t think I read most of the books in that class that semester. Not that they were any good, not that I missed anything. But I did miss the first week of the semester skiing in Courchevel, and I never really caught up. And I am exaggerating, as everybody is wont to do, I read most of the books, but I distinctly remember not reading “The Ginger Man.”

But I did read “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.”

It changed my life.

That and “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” that summer.

It’s different now. Even by 1970 people would have rather recorded the Great American Album as opposed to writing the Great American Novel, but this was before blockbusters. Just like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” ruined the movie business, James Patterson and John Grisham ruined the book business. Suddenly, you could get rich writing a novel. Well, before the techies came along and added a bunch of zeros. So, today we’ve got genre books, mysteries, romance, and “literature,” which is the product of the writing schools wherein the writing supersedes the story and most of it is only read by a small subset of Americans as opposed to everybody.

That was not “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me.”

Its main character is Gnossos Pappadopoulis. It was written by Richard Farina, who was married to Joan Baez’s sister Mimi, and he died in a motorcycle accident two days after the book’s publication. That was big news back then, today no one even knows who Mimi is, never mind reads this book.

You see it’s a combination of irreverence and alienation. The human condition. That’s what’s been lost in today’s mercenary society, everybody hides their identity to get along, to appear a winner, when the truth is being human is challenging, you’re living in your head, does anybody really know you, and does any of it really matter?

Neither of the above books are why I became a writer. That happened earlier, in the fall of my freshman year, but that’s a story for another day.

But “The Knockout Queen” is the story for today.

You see you have an alienated gay teenager whose mother is in prison for attacking his violent father. And this teenager is living with his aunt. And he befriends this tall, rich girl who lives next door.

And that all happens right away, I’m not really giving anything away. That’s what I hate about reviews, they just give a precis of the book, and that’s not what I want…what I want to know is if I should read it!

And I’m not recommending “The Knockout Queen,” because I don’t think it’s for everybody.

But if it’s for you..!

Come on, are you the type who likes to analyze, who takes nothing at face value, who feels like they exist outside the system?

Are you the type who believes life is rigged, never mind politics?

Are you the type who lives for adventure, even if it’s not gonna be posted on Instagram?

Are you the type who adds up the injustices, but soldiers on?

Are you the type who believes it’s just not gonna work out for you?

That’s a lot of us, but most of us don’t want to admit it.

So, by being very small and focused, “The Knockout Queen” becomes universal. Well, that’s overstating the case a bit, but you get what I mean, it speaks to the human condition.

What is said and the choices characters make and the way people act…it’s just like people you know in real life. The one who says they’ll do you any favor, even though they don’t really mean it, they just want points for saying it.

I guess what I’m saying is I was reading “The Knockout Queen” and I suddenly realized, THIS IS ME!

No, I don’t mean I was any character in the book, but it brought me back to who I once was. And believe me, there’s so much I don’t want to go back to from college. But me and my friends used to say, if we ever got rich, we’d establish a chair for “flipped-out literature.” We really said that, again and again. It was a rebellion against the conservatism of Middlebury. Where they didn’t want to know your opinion of the book, they just wanted you to study someone else’s opinion. So why read, you’re removing all the joy from the experience!

As for Rufi Thorpe, the author of “The Knockout Queen”…

The funny thing is when you read a book, you kinda feel like you know the author, And you’re drawn to find out more. Even though if you met in real life they’d want nothing to do with you and you’d find out they’re different from your preconception. But the beauty is you never meet them! You have your own fantasy!

Now most of celebrity journalism is based on movie and TV stars. Who literally play a role. There’s very little there there. Who cares what they’re saying or doing? And then there are reality stars, like the Kardashians, those are business stories, how did they hoodwink America to make all that cash…come on, would you like to hang with these people, the conversation would be inane! And then there are authors. They came up with the story, they’re in the book.

Rufi Thorpe said MFA programs were b.s. Not to go if you had to borrow money to do so. That they were a good place to go to have time off to write, but as for learning anything…

You see the U.S. is one big conformity system. They’re training you to get in line and be just like everybody else. But deep inside, we’re not. We feel different and we’re always wandering around like in that children’s book, asking ARE YOU MY MOTHER? We’re looking for someone who gets us, who is on the same page, who understands us.

And it happens rarely.

Ever try to change your friends? It can’t be done. Oh, you can fake it, but you can’t become a different person. Turns out the popular people are different. They’re fake and duplicitous and fabulous and you need to hang with someone else just as alienated as you.

So, I read “The Knockout Queen” and I was stunned to find someone on the exact same page as me! Once again, not the characters, but the sensibility…as in you’re marching through life and it doesn’t make any sense.

Rufi Thorpe said she wrote what she wanted to write. Which is where all the great stuff comes from. You can go to Nashville and learn how to write for country radio, but you won’t be an original. But originals are who we’re truly looking for! But the gatekeepers think you’re too dangerous, you’re not getting encouragement, and chances are even if what you do is great it’ll fail in the marketplace and…

I did not like the ending of “The Knockout Queen.” Primarily because people don’t change their spots that much. I felt Michael…turned into someone different, as did the Knockout Queen.

Oh, she’s 6’3″ but she’s neither beautiful nor popular. Personality is a factor. Some tall girls become models, and many others regret their height, like Bunny.

Now “The Knockout Queen” is not going to be the book of the year, read by everybody. A lot of book groups will abhor it, because it’s pretty downbeat and the characters are not so likable…it’s not light fiction. Oh, it’s not hard to read, you’re drawn to it, you get caught up and it’s difficult to put down, but it’s not about endless victories.

But there is humor. Life is absurd, sometimes all you can do is laugh.

So if you’re one of those people who wants to only read about music. Who wants to constantly bitch about Spotify. Who watches cartoon movies. I doubt you’ll like this book. It doesn’t give you any answers, it doesn’t pay any financial dividends. And it’s less about the story than the attitude, the viewpoint.

Then again, there’s some of that comic wildness that was in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but instead of being 70mm, “The Knockout Queen” is 16mm, it’s home video, it’s shot on your iPhone and not posted online, it’s only for you.

I’m having a hard time diving into another book because I don’t want the feeling I got reading “The Knockout Queen” to go.

It’s so funny to live so long, see your dreams quashed, march forward somnambulantly and suddenly find out you’re the same person you ever were and someone else is on your page.

That’s how I felt reading “The Knockout Queen.”

Maybe you will too.

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