In May 2001, Time magazine reported that a monster was terrorizing New Delhi. Kala Bandar, as it came to be known among the locals, purportedly leapt from rooftop to rooftop searching for human scratching posts. Evidence of the creature’s existence was dubious at best, but the paranoia it induced was real. The police force tripled, vigilantes wielding field-hockey sticks roamed the streets and three people died from injuries sustained while fleeing from the beast’s shadow.
After a few weeks, Kala Bandar faded into legend. But Jim Knipfel slickly repurposes the story for his lively new novel, “The Blow-Off.”
The narrative revolves around Hank Kalabander, a politically incorrect, hard-boiled New Yorker who writes a sardonic crime-blotter for a free alt-weekly in Brooklyn. Typically, readers find Hank’s columns more useful for wrapping dead fish than for getting news. But when he reports that a local drunk claims to have narrowly escaped a smelly, hairy monster resembling Bigfoot, the story gets picked up first by a blog and then by a tabloid. Before long — presto! — the Gowanus Beast is born, and a bloodthirsty witch hunt erupts on the streets of New York.
“The Blow-Off” is a gritty, satirical thriller that wonderfully echoes H.L. Mencken’s views on the American public. “They should never ask people what they think,” Hank says after watching the local coverage of the beast one night. “It does nothing but illustrate why democracy doesn’t work.” The novel is also a biting commentary on today’s media and viral news. “There’s no proof, no physical evidence,” Hank rants. But the papers run with the story, then the TV news, then the Internet. “And before you know it, eight million jackaninnies believe the sloppy drunk’s story and make it their own.”
A longtime columnist for the New York Press, Knipfel suffers from a degenerative eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa that has left him legally blind. “I hear the world more than I see the world,” he once said in an interview. As a result, Knipfel’s characters are delightfully pitch-perfect, from Hank’s cigar-chomping pal Rocky Roccoco, to his young office mate who ends every sentence with a question mark. “You really shouldn’t call people that?” she admonishes Hank after a particularly off-color tirade. “Because it’s wrong?”
“The Blow-Off” is laugh-out-loud funny, and there’s something charming about Hank and his efforts to save the city. But readers looking for heartwarming resolution will be disappointed. Knipfel would sooner let New York burn.
Wilwol is a writer and teacher living in Washington.
By Jim Knipfel
Simon & Schuster. 318 pp. Paperback, $15