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Weekly Alibi Grotesque and Endearing

MARCH 22, 1999:  I remember the day Herb Caen died. My ex-boyfriend drowned himself in whiskey that night, offering toast after toast to the late, great San Francisco columnist. He wasn't the only one to mourn the passing in some dank Irish North Bay pub. Newspaper columnists possess a rare relationship with their readers. They have the talent (and guts) to offer their personal lives up for personal consumption, and the more dreary and despicable, the more people eat it up. In the tradition of writers like Charles Bukowski and Jerry Stahl (author of Permanent Midnight, his personal memoir of heroin addiction), Jim Knipfel, staff writer for the New York Press, has decided to take his unique column stylings to a new (albeit popular) arena: the hard-cover memoir.

Slackjaw, the book, sounds pretty much identical to Slackjaw, the New York Press column, as far as Knipfel's distinct narrative style and painstaking attention to detail--both grotesque and endearing. But the story's a bit more comprehensive, tracing Knipfel's descent into complete blindness, his battles with a seizure-causing tumor near his brain and his otherwise generally chaotic life.

As a young man, Knipfel was your standard social outcast: a skinny long-hair crouched in a corner reading Nietzsche and plotting political revolution. In college, he found like-minded "border-line psychotics" who steered him toward cigarettes, booze and revolutionary mayhem. But something was wrong. Near-sighted since early childhood, not only was Knipfel's vision tunnelling inward, but he was suffering from indescribable bouts of depression and anger that landed him in the emergency suicide-prevention ward more than once--wrist arteries severed, but sense of humor still intact.

Finally, in his early 20s, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an irreversible, untreatable genetic eye disorder that would, in time, completely blind him. Earlier in his life, in 1977, before such talk of genetics entered everyday speak, Knipfel's Uncle Tom had leaned toward his young nephew with the prophetic words: "You'd better start learning Braille now." Over a decade later, it was discovered that their genes carried the same dysfunction.

As if this weren't enough, it seems the manic and suicidal depressions he'd been experiencing were caused by an inoperable brain lesion. Although the depressions were treatable with drugs, the blindness was unstoppable. The day of diagnosis registered a determination in Knipfel that he'd endure his gloomy fate until the day his vision disappeared completely. Then he'd kill himself.

Dealt a tough hand, we all have our own ways of dealing. Knipfel finds salvation in bars, a series of cockroach infested hovels, a short-lived marriage and a newspaper job where he gets paid to vent, illustrating his knack and aptitude for capturing absurdity. He tells stories of crashing headfirst into streetlamps, tripping over dogs, his crude attempts at house-cleaning and his initial plunge into government assistance, encounter groups and blindness tutorials. He talks about the filth he can only sense growing around him in his apartment. He details his cane classes and the visits he receives from his governmentally-assigned "genie" who promises all kinds of strange tools and devices designed for the legally blind and covered by disability.

The "Knipfel" style is morbid and cynical, for sure, but, particularly as the book progresses, it also contains a certain humility and politeness that is both casual and surprising. And the absurdist humor never falters.

Slackjaw is a work that is unique, deranged and memorable, not unlike the strangely morbid columnist himself. If you enjoy Slackjaw, the book, I suggest you check out the column. Ranging in topics from a lost hat to a visit to Henry Miller's house to a piece titled "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing," tracing a recent trip to the neurologist, these pieces are about as close as you can get to stepping inside Knipfel's shoes for a while. Never a dull moment transpires. (Penguin-Putnam, cloth, $22.95)


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