It's always worth reading someone who can make ordinary events like walking down a dusky city street burst with mystery and menace, or become an amusing corollary for existential doubt. It's that rare quality -- the ability to ignite a reader's interest in intensely personal reflections -- that distinguishes the best personal memoirs, which are by definition subjective and run the risk of floundering amid their own locutions or delving into exaggeration, apologetics or self-pity.
Over the past couple of decades, the memoir has become a familiar staple of American literature. Almost every season one or two books from the lively "I've lived through this!" subcategory draw the sort of media attention that is, unfortunately, more of a testament to the author's wily self-promotion or an unbelievable premise than to the quality of the book.
There's a common cycle that most burgeoning literary genres go through, and the hyperpersonal memoir is no different. Since the late '80s, a seemingly exponential number of writers have been gleefully violating tacit boundaries of taste as though punching through tissue paper, producing a motley catalog of risqué adventures and uncomfortable confessions. Many became underground sensations or the sources of literary gossip, but with the emergence of Oprah and her peers, a new level of fame was possible for the confessional memoirist. Combine that with a creative-writing industry churning out higher and higher numbers of self-conscious graduates every year, and a crush of authors emerged to publish their own stories, like prospectors converging upon a newly discovered gold find. Eventually the genre became so glutted with familiar-sounding stories that the entire genre ended up a limping parody of itself.
Of all the brands of reminiscence -- pained childhood secrets, grimly determined autobiography, the faux-exquisite (and sadly, often exaggerated) reports of sexual excess -- the frequently shrill drinking-drugs-disease-depression beacon is a popular destination. Part of this is because over the years a number of brilliantly wry and moving books have appeared, such as Fred Exley's quasi-fictional "A Fan's Notes," Jim Carroll's "Basketball Diaries," Jerry Stahl's "Permanent Midnight" and, more recently, titles such as Andrew Sheehan's "Chasing the Hawk." But these kinds of memoirs have increasingly become fodder for late-night TV hosts' monologues, the province of sensationalists who traffic in stereotype and Silly Punctuation Gimmicks.
Among all these there's Jim Knipfel, one of our most talented memoirists, who has just published the last book in what he terms "an accidental trilogy." Knipfel is an oddity in that his unadorned writing understates the many horrific incidents he recounts. His first book, "Slackjaw," chronicled his physical deterioration; then he took note of his mental breakdown and incarceration in a mental ward in "Quitting the Nairobi Trio." Now he delves into his soul in "Ruining It for Everybody," which begins with "Whenever I hear the word 'spiritual' I reach for my revolver.'" Knipfel's books aren't the type of easily summarized, life-affirming tales you find on talk shows, though his expert storytelling and sardonic humor make them compelling, sometimes exciting, reading.
Perhaps most impressively, Knipfel somehow avoids the self-pity he'd be within his rights to invoke: He has gradually lost most of his sight to retinitis pigmentosa, a rare eye disease that has left him with a view of the world "kind of like peering through two toilet paper tubes all the time." He also suffered a lesion on his brain that caused seizures and bursts of uncontrollable rage and depression, which prompted numerous suicide attempts that led to intensive care and stays in mental institutions. Yet his books are suffused with such guileless, bracing honesty and such a finely tuned sense of humor that his tale ends up being tragic and funny and memorable all at once.
His previous work has received critical praise from such disparate sources as Thomas Pynchon, who called "Slackjaw" "an extraordinary emotional ride," and Newsweek, which termed him "a master of making art out of illness."
While Knipfel appreciates the recognition, it's an uncomfortable predicament for him. Unlike many authors who double as carnival barkers, Knipfel is an intensely private man, a somewhat unusual paradox for a memoirist and a full-time columnist who has published over 850 columns in his journalism career. (He is currently a staff writer at the New York Press. About his employment, he says, "In general, I find myself a job and do what I do there until I'm asked to leave.")
After taking this interviewer's arm to navigate a dim restaurant that to him represented total darkness, Knipfel talked about his new book, his dislike of readings and the writing scene, and a favorite '70s TV horror show that prompted him to become a journalist.
How is "Ruining It for Everybody" different from your previous two memoirs?
It's the first thing I've written that has a happy ending. Also, I kind of look back at some of the things I was recounting in the first two and assess them with an older set of eyes, after having been through more experience, to kind of look back at these things that I had done that were less than pleasant and begin to reconsider how to deal with the world as I get older and my body continues to break down.
At heart, it's really just another book about a bunch of stuff that happened, but it was later stuff that happened.
How long did it take you to write? It's not your longest book, but you said it actually took the longest to complete.
The writing process can be very tedious one, and I'm not a big fan of publicity, to my publicist's dismay. I find it remarkable that I can make a living telling a story like this, but the process has its ups and downs just like any job.
I prefer to write in marathon fashion. I take a week or two off and lock myself in my apartment and sit down in front of the machine for 10 hours a day. "Slackjaw" took two weeks to finish, 10 days for "Nairobi Trio." But it didn't work out that way this time. I finished "Ruining It for Everybody" in 1999 or 2000 but then I had to go through a number of different editors and I wrote a novel, "The Buzzing," before it was finished.
My books are just about a bunch of stuff that happened. You look back and see them as independent incidents, but it takes a good editor to take what can be an incoherent mass of three or four dozen stories and see in them a larger theme that I would ignore or even deny myself. For example, my editor pointed out that "Slackjaw" was about moving toward blindness, which put the idea in my head and I began looking at the stories in a different way and trying to find something that flows and has a rhythm. Something indefinable.
The tone of "Ruining It for Everybody" seems much different from that of your previous two memoirs.
One of the things explored in the book is that I'm much calmer now than I used to be, and much less angry than I used to be. Of course, I can still be irked sometimes. I can be annoyed at times and frustrated. But I used to be riddled with this uncontrollable rage that came out in different ways. And it's just not there anymore for a variety of reasons. It burned itself out of me and I fell into a little rut. I just don't have that much to be pissed about.
But what distinguishes your memoirs from others is real, sometimes insurmountable crises. You suffer from retinitis pigmentosa [R.P.], you've had a serious brain lesion and seizures, you've attempted suicide and ended up in a mental ward.
I've heard that before, but I think a lot of things happen to a lot of people -- a lot of things happen to most people. It's a matter of looking at it the right way; I mean, you can do a 1,000-word story about something as simple as tripping on the curb -- and I have. There really is a story in everybody. This morning I heard a fellow describing Ronald Reagan as a man who looked at the world in terms of anecdotes and narratives. You sort of have to do that, to make a life interesting. That's how people are measured by others, by the stories we tell. You know, you talk to people in a bar and what do you do? You tell stories. It's just a matter of looking at everything from the proper angle. I think everybody's got it in them, I just happened to type 'em out.
When did you find out you had R.P.?
I always had bad vision, like 20/100, that was completely unrelated to R.P. But the R.P. first appeared at 11 or 12, when I could no longer see in dim restaurants or see at night. I didn't think there was anything strange about that -- I thought no one could see like that. I thought other people could read menus or stroll down the street at night because there was a trick that no one had shared with me. It wasn't until I was in my 20s -- I think I was 23 or 24 -- when I went in for a routine eye exam and the ophthalmologist told me what I had and told me that I was going to be blind in a few years.
It's a congenital condition. At my grandmother's funeral when I was about 12, my uncle came up to me and said, "You better start learning Braille now." I already had bad vision, and considering the family history he already suspected. He gave me a head's up long before any doctor did.
There's not much I can do about it. There's lots of research going on but nothing they can do now. There are lots of technological gizmos -- chips in eyes and electronic cameras -- but for people in their 70s or 80s. They're also working on gene therapy where they could correct the genetic problem, but they would only be able to do that on the youngest of infants. Neither works for me, so I just deal. Losing sight like this is a gradual, slow process. I was told that I'd be blind at 35 and I'm 39 now, so I got a little more time on them, but I have no idea when I'll go totally blind. One treatment is to take massive doses of vitamin A every day, which is supposed to slow the process while destroying your liver at the same time. So that's what I'm doing.
What about the brain lesion?
The brain lesion happened when I received a very bad concussion in 1985. I was walking down the street with my friend Grinch and I walked into steel lamppost. The next morning I couldn't move. After a battery of tests no one could say anything about what was wrong. Then in Philly I got an MRI and a doctor there pointed to a spot on my brain. I can't do anything about it but take lots of Tegratol, which is an anti-convulsive.
In other memoirs, parents are often the only source of definable evil in the universe. But you write very warmly about yours. Have you always been close to them?
We didn't have any of those teenage fights. The only things we ever argued about were religion and politics. They were a very Christian religious Republican family, German Lutherans, and I didn't last very long with that. When I went off to school and got into trouble, burning buildings and breaking things, I still talked to them but I mostly stayed out of touch. I wasn't going to call up and say, "Hey, a cop beat me today!" or "Guess what I stole this afternoon?" But after the suicide attempt, when they sat at my side in the intensive care unit, we've been exceptionally close.
One time I talked with Teller of Penn and Teller, who wrote some kind of biography of his parents. I was shocked that anyone else would admit that they liked their parents in this day and age. As to memoirs, you'd get the idea that we're a nation of victims, and to many people their parents are the source. That's been thick and heavy throughout the entire culture for the past 40 years. But not me. I had a great childhood.
Did the stories you told and heard during the not insignificant time you've spent in bars inspire the stories in your memoirs?
Most of them, yes. In fact, all of them. A lot of these stories that I tell, taken individually, are things that that I would tell to my girlfriend while the two of us were just talking and, you know, a story would come together. And if I have the chance I'll try it out on a few people and if the story gets a good response I'll write it down. A lot of these stories got their start from talking in bars.
Do you ever drink and write?
No, I do most of my writing as early as possible in the morning. I just work better that way. My brain starts to slow down around 3 in the afternoon. So I just cram in as much as I can in in seven and eight hours and then I stop. And then I start drinking.
What's your favorite New York bar?
I never divulge that.
Probably a wise idea. You'll have all these groupies all over you ...
No, no -- scary people.
Well, 99.99 percent of the people who come up and want to talk to me are great, but that teeny tiny percentage is totally insane, which I think you'll find is true of anything in life. I've had guys follow me home or hang around in front of the office or hang around in front of my apartment. They've gotten bad over the years. Every new receptionist [at the New York Press] has instructions from me that if I don't know them, I'm not expecting anyone.
People pop up on the street and try to talk to you?
Well, talking to me is fine, but a few would start following me and I can't get rid of them. And a few of them are very, very creepy. Very disturbed people. It starts off innocently -- they want to talk about a story or they want to talk about one of my books -- but then, I don't know, things start to get stranger and stranger. I'm not ever sure what it is that they want, other than to sap my energy. I'm an extraordinarily private person. The novels I write are basically about my private life, but when it comes to my private life I just want to be left alone. What I keep thinking is, Who am I? I mean, why don't they bother someone worthwhile?
You've said that you don't have much to do with literary events. How come?
Literary parties are the most miserable goddamn things in the world. I mean, I don't like parties anyway, but literary parties are the most boring, dry affairs, with all these egos in one room. There was a rash of book parties that friends of mine had, so I told my publicist that I didn't want a book party. He told me, "To be honest, we weren't planning on one." They preferred to spend the money on advertising or book copies. They throw book parties if they feel an author's ego needs it, if their ego is fragile enough that it needs that type of boost. I guess my ego is fine. In fact, if they'd had a book party for one of my books, I wouldn't have shown up.
Last time I went to a literary party, my girlfriend and I ended up getting into a fistfight with some little screwhead.
What? How did that happen?
Well, we were sitting at this party with some friends, and this youngster came up to us and he and his friend started hitting on this woman at our table in the most unimaginative, crude fashion imaginable. She eventually gets up and leaves, and after she's gone this guy sits down in our booth. Morgan, my girlfriend, and I are trying to figure this out. We asked him in a variety of ways, not too subtly, that we'd like him to leave, that he acted like a jerk and scared this woman away and that he was not welcome at this particular booth. But he just sat there. We had a few drinks in us, and he was a very rude young man, and Morgan finally stood up at one point and slapped the free martini out of his hand. I mean, this had been going on for some time and we had tried to be very rational. Clearly he didn't know the writer, he just saw the open bar. If you're going to be a party crasher, know how to do it. This wasn't how you do it.
So she slaps the martini glass out of his hand and he actually takes a swing at her. And that, I mean -- that just isn't done. So I listened to where his voice was and aimed a tad south and I ended up kneeling on his chest and I was choking him for a little while before we were broken apart. He threatened to call the police but he never did. I was kind of hoping he might. I'd love to hear the cop asking him, "So you were beat up by a blind man after you swung at a woman?"
That must have livened up the party. What about readings?
I've never been in a fistfight at a reading.
No, I mean, do you like them? The mood at most readings usually reminds me of attending some sort of family event.
I don't attend very many. And I've never done that many. When I did, I used to puke beforehand, though I don't do that anymore. They're just basically unpleasant for me. When I'm trying to read aloud I blow up these pages as big as I possibly can but still usually after a page and a half everything goes dark and I have to start making things up. So it's very difficult. And also I just don't like the whole idea of performing.
So you're not part of the whole New York writer scene?
No, no. Back in high school when I got into punk rock, even the punks rejected me and didn't want me around. I've never been part of any scene. I know a few writers in town, but we don't sit around and talk about writing. I tend to avoid the company of writers. I know some very, very nice ones, some really wonderful people. But for the most part, they're just obnoxious horrible people. Especially in New York. There's so much backbiting, so much one-upmanship. It's a very ugly, very competitive business. They're always going into print badmouthing other writers, badmouthing their contemporaries -- I don't do that. It's tough enough to just get by, just to make it anyway. There's no point in trying to build yourself up by gutting someone else.
I heard you on a radio show the other day -- do you like radio? It seems like the sort of thing you must be used to, talking to people without seeing them.
As long as it's not a call-in show. Those are nightmares. Those shows just kind of collapse around me. For "Slackjaw" I did this call-in show in Madison, Wis., and there was dead silence the first half of the show, and then there was call after call after call -- mostly people telling cripple jokes. Then you had people calling in weeping over lost wives. It was a disaster. Even my dad called in. He was like, "Hi son, we're going to see you in a few days, right?" He was just calling to check in and I said, "Dad, I'm on the radio," and he said, "Yeah, I know, I'm listening to it." The whole thing was a disaster, but what was funny was that a couple minutes after the show the producer came out and came right up to me and said, "That was the best show I've ever done."
I was doing a call-in for my novel "The Buzzing" a while ago, which is about a fourth-rate newspaper reporter who ends up covering the kook beat. There's a conspiratorial subtext to the story, so every conspiracy nut in Urbana, Ill., called in -- I mean, they're at home, they don't have anything else to do, they're conspiracy nuts. So on the show we're talking about UFOs, we're talking about Kennedy, we're talking about AIDS, we're talking about 9/11, every conspiracy in the world. And I'm just there trying to tell people about my novel.
I did one for this current book and I started getting calls because people heard that it's a spiritual book. It isn't, but the host read the back cover quote about the book being "Buddhism for Drunkards" ...
Doesn't the back cover also have the line "Whenever I hear the word 'spiritual' I reach for my revolver"?
Yeah, that's on this book, too. So the host reads that and suddenly all these people call in asking questions about the soul. I tried to tell them, "I don't know about that, it's just a bunch of funny stories." I mean, I don't think it's anything more than a metaphor we use to explain human behavior, but what do I know? Then another caller asks a complex question about Buddhism, and I'm like, "I don't know ..."
Have you read a lot of other people's memoirs?
No, I don't really. Nowadays because of the eyes I listen to a lot of books on tape and so mostly I listen to a lot of crap -- thrillers and mysteries and horror novels. In general, the people who do the audiobooks tend to only go after those that they know will sell a bunch. So as a result you get the bestsellers.
There's been an explosion in memoirs over the past 15 years. Everybody has a story to tell about some awful misery that they've been though, or a story of their life as a professional hockey player, or whatever. Lots of mountain climbers have written memoirs, it seems to me. I have not paid much attention to them but I know that they're out there. I guess I took it as evidence of what an awful, whiny nation of navel-gazers we've become.
What do you think about people in their mid-20s writing memoirs? The type that tend to boil down to "I drank a lot, I did a lot of coke ..."
Sure, and that's certainly what I did. To be honest, I think putting out three memoirs before the age of 40, which is what I did, is insane, it's asinine. But that's just the way things turned out. There's a quote from Thomas Pynchon's book "V" where he says essentially you should never write a memoir until you're absolutely certain when you're going to die. Because if you write one before, who knows what magnificent things you can do during the rest of your life? Or if nothing else happens to you, how disappointing would that be?
Mostly the what I call "Oh my God, I have a horrible disease" memoirs are at a point where they're very whiny and very victim-oriented and very self-centered. But on the other hand, sometimes when I'm riding on the train or walking down the street, if I feel particularly generous toward the world that day, I look around and think, All these people have got some sort of big story of their lives to tell. So we do all have stories. I just don't think all of them should be published.
Are you able to read books at all, or can you only listen to them on tape?
Actually, I do carry a book and a magnifying glass with me at all times, and I can get through maybe a page or a page and a half at a time. The other day I just finished something that surprised me, an old novel by Stanislaw Lem called "The Investigation" about a guy trying to figure out a case involving revived corpses. It was brilliant, it surprised the hell out of me.
That sounds like that old TV show you like so much --
Yes, "Kolchak: The Night Stalker." It was on for two seasons in 1973 and 1974. It's about a rumpled, world-weary journalist in Chicago who every week uncovers evidence of monster activity in town and tries to simultaneously thwart the monsters and get the story past a perpetually skeptical editor. I liked it as a kid because it was scary and there wasn't much else on then that was scary. The monsters attracted me. Now I look at it -- I have a handful of tapes -- and I see other things. The main character was one of the main inspirations for me to become a journalist.
Sure, I thought I'd be covering monster stories, though there isn't much activity around here.
I would have thought New York would be the place to find them.
Well, there are plenty around here, but all of the human variety. The place to go for monsters is India or Russia. They have all sorts of sightings and encounters. We're just about to get into the monkey-men season in India right now. Every summer the monkey men supposedly come back and there's mass hysteria that travels from village to village and everyone becomes convinced that they've seen the monkey men, with different descriptions as to what they look like. Some even have different magic powers. The monkey men don't hurt anyone but people do get hurt jumping off roofs trying to run away from them. Or they get trampled by a mob or get hurt by other people who think their neighbor is a monkey man.
There was a murderous Bigfoot in Russia a few months ago. Lots of UFO sightings there, too. Also -- this took place in Iraq prior to the war -- but I read off a Russian news wire that there were reports Saddam had contacted aliens and managed to combine alien DNA with scorpion DNA and breed giant scorpions that were guarding his palaces. We haven't heard much about that since the troops moved in, but they're probably still out there.
Most of my career decisions as a child were made for me by the movies. I wanted to be a seismologist after "Earthquake," I wanted to be an ichthyologist after "Jaws." I wanted to be a theoretical physicist after watching "Cosmos." Those other things didn't pan out, and after about six weeks at University of Chicago I found out I wasn't cut out for theoretical physics. So I decided to take a much easier route and took philosophy instead.
This is an obnoxious question, but do you see yourself as part of any literary tradition?
There are a lot of authors I love, a lot of authors I have the greatest respect for. My library is filled with books that I go back to whenever I can. I think this is true for anybody: When a person starts writing, you have these authors that you love, so when you start out writing you imitate them. I was mimicking a whole slew of people in my 20s: Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, Charles Bukowski. Whatever the other angry drunken white people were reading in those days.
In the late '80s I got a job in Philly writing a column and I was being somebody different every week. Once a guy stopped me at a party and he could tell me exactly what I had been reading the week before from what I'd written in my column. He could tell me obscure things like "you were reading this essay from Norman Mailer last week" or "you were reading this section of this book." He was just a guy who read a lot but it was astonishing and it actually put the fear of God into me. I didn't realize it'd been that obvious but we rarely do until somebody points it out to us.
Have you gotten better at the publicity demands of your writing career?
I hate to say it's become old hat, but I'm much more comfortable. I do much, much less publicity as time goes on. The first time I had a book come out, they sent me out on a 10-city tour. Putting a blind man on a plane to 10 cities he's never been to before stuck me as cruel and funny. It was exhausting. Everything went fine but I never want to do something like that again.
It was like an ongoing episode of "This Is Your Life." I didn't think I knew anyone going into these towns, but I'd get to these readings and people from grade school and junior high school would pop up afterwards. People I hated. It was never people that I liked. I was like, "Ugh, why are you bothering me this way?" I had no idea they'd remember me. In Milwaukee a guy that used to beat the shit out of me in junior high school showed up afterwards. It turned out he was an ophthalmologist. Also a couple of creepy people came: One woman who found out where I was staying and left a 20-minute phone message that had nothing to do with me, it was just a long rambling message. I was glad I wasn't there to pick up the phone.
Then at the end, when I thought I was finally going back home to Brooklyn, they sent me down to L.A. -- and I hate L.A. -- to talk to these two TV people about making "Slackjaw" into a television series, which was mortifying. So I went down there, and in describing how cutting-edge the show would be, one of the TV people said that it would be "like that 'Ally McBeal' show!" It was totally demoralizing.
Are you satisfied with what you've done or, like many writers, do you feel a frustrating lack of completion with anything you do?
I've never really been satisfied with any of the books I've done. I think back to them and cringe. If I could -- but I wouldn't want to at this point -- I would completely rewrite them. I just don't fret about them as much. I'd still redo it if I could, but my favorite is the second one ["Quitting the Nairobi Trio"]. It's a singular story. I hate to use terms like "narrative arc," but it's one story and I wrote it straight through. I think it holds up.
Was it difficult writing about that -- the suicide attempts? Some of it's pretty grim material.
Actually, I thought it was pretty funny myself. No, it's not difficult for me. I've been through it so many times and I've gone over it so many times with people that it wasn't a big deal. I can't explain why I [attempted suicide] so many times, and how I did such a horrible job of it.
That particular time, I was living in Minneapolis and one night I tried to hang myself, which I did badly and it didn't work, and then I tried to O.D. by gobbling a double handful of pills and washing them down with a fifth of Scotch, which I did a little better and which almost worked. I was in my apartment at the time and I stumbled out into the hallway and made such a commotion that the cops came and they ended up beating me up. As suicide scenes go, I thought it was pretty funny.
After that you spent time in a mental hospital. You've obviously written about it, but what do you remember now when you think about your time there?
When I think of the hospital I think of my first night there. It sounds like fiction, but my very first night there I had a roommate and we never spoke to each other. He was a very nervous sort. I went to bed and I was awakened in the middle of the night by some maintenance guys in there swabbing big pools of blood off the bathroom floor. I asked them what happened and they said it was none of my business. There's a huge pool of blood on the bathroom floor and it's none of my business? If he'd had a twitch three synapses over, my roommate would have been cutting me up instead. The next morning the doctor wouldn't give me my electric razor, fearing that I would try to do myself in with it.
But there wasn't much violence there except for that -- well, that's not really right. There were other times, but nothing like that first night. Mostly, life there is boring and slow. You learn a lot about waiting. You wait for the breakfast cart or for a doctor to show up once every two weeks. Those are the things I remember.
What future writing plans do you have?
I'd like to do more novels. I had so much fun writing the first one. I've written a couple since "The Buzzing," but they haven't gone over very well with the publisher. I'd like to take a little -- or a long -- break from the memoir game, mostly because I'm kind of tired of talking about myself. At least I'll have to wait until something else horrible and funny happens to me that I think I could get a book out of.
Sounds like you're feeling pretty good.
When I look at myself now, every day is pretty much OK. I think part of it too is that -- and I know writers who do this -- I can't pretend to still be so angry and still be pissed at everything anymore. You can never pull that off. It's just sad. So I'm not going to pretend.
In a way, my eyesight is something I grew into. With anything, we take a look at what we have to work with. I don't have eyesight, but I have plenty of other things. I work around the eyesight. Look at Ray Charles, he couldn't see, but he could play the piano. We deal with what we've got, we make do. I go through bitter phases. There's nothing noble about this; it's like if I'd been left-handed or born an idiot, you deal with it. You do what you can.
For the most part, I sit in my apartment or I sit in my office and write my stories. My dealings with the publishing industry have been for the most part been very good. And I've been very lucky in that I've always had another project lined up to work on. I've always had something to do. I mean, it's no way to make a living -- you're never going to make a ton of money except in very rare exceptions -- but I get paid to write stupid stories. I'm happy with that. It's a rare opportunity.