''Slackjaw'' opens with author Jim Knipfel calling a suicide hot line, despondent over his failing vision, ready to do himself in -- and cracking jokes. When the phone volunteer informs him that razors rarely work, he asks what method she'd recommend instead. The dark humor turns to horror when he actually cuts his wrists. But by the time he's taken to the emergency room, he's back to the wisecracks.
The jokes continue throughout "Slackjaw." But most of them aren't funny as much as they are sarcastic. Knipfel, a columnist for a New York weekly who lived in Minneapolis in the late 1980s, writes with a world-weary bitterness that is supposed to seem sophisticated but comes off posed.
Granted, he has plenty to be bitter about. He's losing his eyesight to a congenital disease that will blind him by his mid-30s. He also has an inoperable lesion in his brain. But the brain injury (treated with drugs) is mentioned only briefly, and his vision doesn't completely deteriorate until the last quarter of the book.
Until then, he presents his life story as a string of anecdotes involving collegiate pranks, dead-end jobs and round-the-clock drinking. They rarely go much deeper than stories you might hear over beers with someone you don't know very well. And you probably won't want to know Knipfel any better, as he ridicules the looks of fellow patients in the doctor's office, considers mugging an old woman on the subway, intercepts another old woman's senile letters to anchorman Dan Rather and pockets the few dollars she has tucked inside.
Even while his eyes still work, he's not a keen observer; the characters, including his wife, are so one-dimensional that they barely cast a shadow on the page. (Nor did he observe Minneapolis very well. He misspells Nicollet Avenue throughout, and confuses the location of a seamy part of downtown Hennepin Avenue that was supposedly his favorite hangout.)
Even his own character gets little scrutiny. Rarely does he question why the bright son of loving middle-class parents would grow into a slacker who wastes his education, lives in squalor, unapologetically steals from old people and keeps trying to kill himself. When he does, his answers are glib.
"Call it boredom," he says of the suicide attempts. ". . . In a way, it's not insanity at all. I'm perfectly sane. It scares me. And suicide seems a perfectly sane response to a banal world."
Denied the insight that might inspire empathy, readers may roll their eyes at Knipfel's overblown sense of drama. He claims that selling his blood plasma was a lot like heroin addiction. He shoplifts some philosophy and architecture books and sees himself as a dangerous outlaw. Routine annoyances -- subway breakdowns, chatty strangers -- test the limits of his endurance. A boring job as a museum guard threatens to drive him over the edge: "Figures in paintings started to move and gesture at me. I stopped understanding my own language. I started drinking on the job, sneaking pulls from the half-pint in my pocket. Most frightening, I got some bad ideas in my head, and started making plans. Before anything bloody could happen, I split."
Then a strange thing happens. Toward the end of the book, when his eyesight finally gives out, Knipfel becomes slightly more interesting. It's partly because his situation demands genuine sympathy. How will a guy already so inept at everyday life cope with something like this? But also, as he learns to use a cane and gets training in commuting and housekeeping, Knipfel mysteriously seems more sincere. He heaps less scorn on people who try to help him. He tones down the tough-guy act. The change isn't dramatic, but it's perceptible.
It's common in stories about blindness to find a distinction drawn between seeing and perceiving -- the blind person's supposed ability to understand in a way that doesn't require eyes. Knipfel doesn't mention that cliche. But as he loses his sight and gains some humanity, his story -- perhaps unintentionally -- suggests there's some truth to it.
-- Katy Read is a Minneapolis freelance writer and former reporter for several daily newspapers around the United States.