Beadel Debevoise reports: Jim Knipfel is a fat, bald Brooklyn writer rapidly approaching his 50s. Indeed, in the shifty light of the Shore Hotel room we’re sharing this rainy summer morning in Coney Island, some might say he is well past fifty. If a grumpy reputation precedes him– largely due to Jim’s candor in his long-running column, “Slackjaw“– I hear no evidence of it; he is the perfect gentleman, with a disarming penchant for breaking into song during quiet moments. Jim’s resemblance to a less hirsute Burl Ives then is almost eerie.
Brian Berger & I are here– as hundreds of other members of the international literary press will be soon–to speak with Jim about his latest novel, Noogie’s Time To Shine. Against the wishes of his publisher, Jim chose the Shore Hotel “because Kid Twist died here,” he says, gesturing towards the far eastward reaches of Surf Avenue. (On November 12, 1941, longtime Murder Inc. hitman & recent stoolie, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles famously plunged from a police guarded room at the Half Moon Hotel, which stood between West 28th & West 29th Streets.)
Jim’s dressed neatly in black jeans, black shoes & a grey Green Bay Packers t-shirt. A well-known blindie, Jim’s cane, with its custom-made Residents eyeball atop the handle– lies across the bed & his trademark hat hangs upon the bathroom doorknob. “Everyone thinks it’s a fedora,” Jim explains. “But it’s really not. It’s a homburg, a pearl-gray homburg.”
There’s been some talk in the underground about Noogie’s “imperfections.” While avid readers of hardboiled fiction might feel Noogie’s fails to achieve the negative apotheoses of favorite works by David Goodis or Jim Thompson, Ross Macdonald or Charles Williams, it’s a more than fair, distinctly Knipfelian, addition to a genre built on imperfection & exigency. With Vedrana Rudan of the Croation newspaper Nacional waiting patiently outside on Henderson Walk, the interview began.
A STRANGE COMMONPLACE
Brian Berger : Jim Knipfel—Park Slope writer. Did you have any idea when you moved to Brooklyn how much company you’d end up with? Besides Henry Miller & Hubert Selby, did you have any specifically Brooklyn totems (The French Connection, The Warriors, Saturday Night Fever, Welcome Back, Kotter) when you moved here?
When it became clear that I was moving to New York back in 1990 (against my will, I might add), I only had two things in mind that made me insist on Brooklyn—Henry Miller and Coney Island. When I was young, those two things were Brooklyn, and that was enough for me. What’s more, Brooklyn seemed much tougher, much grittier, much more real than Manhattan.
I ended up in Park Slope simply because after checking out a bunch of neighborhoods, it was here that I found a decent apartment for cheap. Of course that was many years ago. As it happens, a few months after I moved in I learned that I was literally just a few blocks down the street from where Miller lived with his first wife. And that block still looks exactly like he describes it in Tropic of Capricorn and The Rosy Crucifixion. To this day, I make a pilgrimage past his front door at least 2 or 3 times a week.
Back in 1990, things were quite different around here. If I’d known what was coming, I might well have fled—but fled where? As for the deluge of writers here, well, I don’t deal with them much, and they don’t deal with me. I’m friends with Pete Blauner, who used to live a few doors down, but that’s about it. Let’s just say I don’t seem to be welcome in their club—which doesn’t exactly hurt my feelings. Christ, there’s a B&N a block away from my apartment. That they don’t ask me to give readings there is one thing—but they’ve never once put my books in their “local authors” section. I guess I’m not family friendly enough or something.
Brian: What Park Slope or other Brooklyn shops, bars, restaurants & so forth have closed that you most miss? Conversely, what changes annoy or sadden you the most? I miss Last Exit Books, on 6th just below 9th in particular.
Jim: I don’t even know where to begin with that one. Well, I guess I’ll start at the beginning. When I first moved in, there was a bar called Luisi’s right around the corner. During the day—and they opened early—it would be empty except for 3 old men sitting at the end of the bar, playing blackjack with Luisi. Come 9, 10 at night, it would suddenly become packed with these cartoonish Puerto Rican thugs who did nothing but drink, deal and kill. It was, as they say, a real action spot. In ’91 or ’92, though, Luisi—who was pushing 80—got tired of all the drugs and violence and sold out. Since then it’s been a lesbian fern bar.
Back then—early ’90s, I mean—Park Slope used to be full of magical places. I mean that literally. There was a bodega across the street that was clearly a front. The shelves were almost completely empty. In spite of that, though, even though there were only a half dozen products on the shelves, they always just happened to have exactly what you were looking for. And the beer, both domestic and imported, was always $5 a sixer.
A few months after that place was shut down, a big sign appeared in the window that read “Coming Soon—A Tavern.” I was so fucking excited about that. Having a bar right across the street? What could be more convenient? Then the bar opened, and, well. Let’s just say it weren’t no Luisi’s.
Up on 7th there was a tiny hole in the wall record store called Sound Track. They were magical, too. Mostly they just carried greatest hits CDs. They didn’t have much room for anything else. It wasn’t the kind of place to just go browse. But if you went in with a specific title in mind, no matter how obscure, it would be there. Residents, Slim Gaillard, some long-forgotten early 20th century composer. I was never disappointed. They closed down about a year ago.
So many great little independent shops have closed down. After hanging on for years, my pharmacist—a wonderful character—finally sold out to CVS. The Roost Pub is now a generic cabinet shop. There was another bodega just down the street. They weren’t magical, exactly, but they sure did make life easy. Now it’s a boutique called “The Bodhi Tree.”
Maybe I should stop with that. It sums things up pretty well. I won’t even touch the Coney question. What’s been happening there—going all the way back to Guiliani’s commando raid on the Thunderbolt—is nothing short of criminal.
ARE YOU SURE SAM FULLER DONE IT THIS WAY?
Brian: You had a long run—shockingly so, even—at New York Press. I didn’t know you then but as a reader, it was inspiring to see such a diverse, weird group of writers successfully published. Did you feel like you were part of something exceptional? I remember the memorial piece you wrote for a production director that really got at a certain camraderie.
Jim: Now that, on the other hand, was a club I WAS proud to be part of. Back around ’96, ’97 I think we all sensed that we were part of something remarkable. Everyone who was a part of it looks back on those days as the Golden Age of the Press, Everyone was doing something different, but the energy was communal. And the one to thank for that is John Strausbaugh. He had this uncanny sense for finding unknown writers with potential. And because of him, we ended up with the likes of William Monahan, Jonathan Ames, Mistress Ruby, J.R. Taylor, Zach Parsi, CJ Sullivan, Paul Lukas, Dave Lindsay, Spike Vrusho—the list goes on and on. It was almost like a ratty, underground version of those early years at Esquire. Between 1995 and 2000, there was nothing like that paper anyplace. And even if there was some professional jealousy, a few threatened egos here and there, at heart we all got along extraordinarily well. Funny thing is, when we were located at the Puck Building, that sense of camaraderie extended to the art department and business department as well. It was really weird. I’ve never seen such a collection of skewed personalities all working on one thing before. It’s gratifying to see how many of the writers and illustrators have since gone on to pretty great things after getting their first public exposure in this scrappy little weekly.
After the paper was sold and Strausbaugh was fired, though, that sense of camaraderie deteriorated pretty quickly. (The obit you mentioned was for the Great Don Gilbert, who ran the production department. Amazing guy. He’d put the paper together, then go hang out with the Hell’s Angels, or go surfing. Shortly before he died, he and I were planning to write a book together. He was one of the very good ones.)
STREET OF NO RETURN
Brian: Did you have any interest in graffiti? Do you remember the REVS/Cost campaigns of the early-mid ’90s? They would have been ubiquitous around Soho & the Press office I believe.
Jim There was no avoiding the REVS/Cost business. I admired what they were able to pull off—b: I never had the slightest interest in graffiti, though there was certainly nout it was a culture that never intrigued me in any way. I’m more interested in bar bathroom graffiti—though you don’t see much of that around these days anymore, which is too bad.
Brian: You’ve written often about your work & travel routines; how difficult has it been adapting yourself to the home office? Are you ever recognized? I remember “Slackjaw” often had caricatures of you & I’m pretty sure I saw you on the F-train a bunch before realizing who that-dude-in-the-hat you was as a “public figure.”
Jim: I can’t tell you how many times I was stopped as a result of Russell Christian’s caricatures. When I first started writing for the Press back in ’93, another illustrator—Marcellus Hall—worked the column. He drew me as a bald, fat 50 year-old. I liked that. But Russell took over pretty soon thereafter, and he drew, well, me. A lumpy version, maybe, but I guess I gave him enough cartoonish tics to work with. Hair, hat, cane. You don’t need much more. Marcellus took the column over again for awhile after Russell left, and I asked specifically that he draw me as a bald, fat, 50 year old.
In answer to your question, though, I get stopped much less frequently nowadays, mostly because I don’t go out very often, and I got my hair cut. Now instead of a lost Van Zant brother, I look like most everyone else. But with a hat. Gotta say I prefer anonymity.
AND ABRAHAM SLEPT
Brian: Can you tell us a little about your relationship(s) with Hubert Selby & his work? What did you think of the film versions of Last Exit and Requiem?
Jim: Selby was, needless to say, a hero of mine. First read him in my teens, and was hooked. Nobody talks about this much—they talk about the style, the brutality and what-not—but Selby was also responsible for the greatest nose-picking scene in all of literature. It’s near the end of Last Exit—the scene with the old ladies sitting on the park bench. That scene really got to me.
I’m sorry I never mentioned that to him. I was lucky enough to get the chance to talk to Selby a number of times over the years. He was a sweetheart of a man. He was always talking about his anger, but I never saw it. Sadly, the last time I talked to him was around the time he was working on Waiting Period. He was in pretty bad shape then, physically. Of course he always had been, but at this point he was reduced to writing no more than a couple sentences a day, and he was hooked to an oxygen tank. I tried to talk about books, but he couldn’t remember anything. Not even his own books. Still, though, he was one of the wisest people I’ve ever known. For the record, he told me that The Room was his favorite of all his books.
As for the movies, I liked Requiem and Last Exit a bunch. I haven’t seen any of the others. They weren’t perfect films—there are certain scenes, certain stylistic touches that simply don’t translate to film—but they came as close as they could. And I think the casting—especially in Last Exit—was perfect. I’ll see anything with Burt Young.
THE MACHINE IN THE 14th WARD
Brian: As a novelist, if I had to pick one author you most resemble it’d be Charles Willeford; coincidence?
Jim: I do love the Willeford, I’ll tell you that. As far as Noogie is concerned— especially after all the permutations the manuscript went through over the years—I can’t say that I had Willeford consciously in mind as I wrote. But you know how these things work—you absorb the things you read, and they come out later, subconsciously. The author I was reading when I was gearing up to write the novel was David Goodis. But I don’t think there’s a hint of Goodis in Noogie, so there you go.
Brian: How did you get into noir/crime fiction? Were the original Black Lizard reprints an inspiration or were you seeking things out before then?
Jim: I’ve always been fascinated in the human aspects of criminality, and so I was tracking down pulp novels and noir films when I was very young, long before Black Lizard was born—though I was thrilled when those titles began reappearing. I’m not sure where the interest came from. Growing up in Wisconsin, there wasn’t a whole lot of crime—but what crime there was (like the Gein case) tended to be pretty bizarre. I latched on to Wisconsin Death Trip pretty early, too. And I always loved the crime blotter in the local papers. I think crime blotters represent a purely American and grossly under appreciated literary form.
Maybe I became intrigued by people who stepped over the line, who stole and murdered, because my childhood was so suburban and benign.
Beyond that, there was a style to the pulps, a nihilism that struck home with me. And in a literary sense, pulp authors could get away with things that no other writer could. Look at Jim Thompson, for example. It’s been awhile, but I think it was in Hell of a Woman that he’s telling this story, things are moving along. Then you reach this very intense scene and he just stops dead, backs up, and tells the whole story over again from the same character’s perspective, though this time the perspective is a touch skewed. A number of pulp writers were accidentally experimental in ways like that.
I always wanted to be a pulp writer. In fact, after I finished Noogie I began pitching another one—though this was going to be a double novel. Two novels bound back to back, like the old Ace Doubles. Trick here was that I would write both, and both would tell the same story, but in different genres. I was told in no uncertain terms that it just wasn’t gonna happen.
Brian: The change of narrative point of view in Noogie seems to be a source of controversy. Not that I write fiction but I thought it’d be interesting if you took it even further, & had the book design be like one of those two-in-one pulp paperbacks.
Jim: Whoops—I seem to be answering your questions before I see them. In the case of Noogie, though, it’s a very long story as to why it turned out that way. See, the original version, written back in 2002, was just a straightforward goofy pulp novel based on a tiny item I saw in the Post. The entire book was told from Noogie’s perspective. Then I began digging into the story behind that Post item—got ahold of police files and coroner’s reports, interviewed the FBI agent who worked the case, etc.—and it turned out to be an incredibly twisted, and funny, and bizarre case. The real story was much weirder and more improbable than anything I had come up with.
Funny thing is, when my agent first started trying to sell the original version of Noogie, she was told that the crime itself was just too unbelievable. Little did they know. So I rewrote the novel in three parts, from three different perspectives. But my editor at the time felt that this was too confusing, that readers wouldn’t get it, and suggested I just make it two perspectives. Well, it seems that people are still getting confused.
A TIGER IN THE HOUSE
Brian: You’ve written movingly about your cats—condolences on the recent death, by the way. One of Noogie‘s endearing qualities is that he travels with his cat, Dillinger. My first thought was this was a nod to another cat lover, William S. Burroughs’ nod & his dedication inTornado Alley: “For John Dillinger, In hope he is still alive.”
Jim: Hmmm… I think you should hang onto that thought, as the real answer is much more banal than that. See, when people come to me with interpretations of my books that are much deeper or much more literary than anything I had in mind, I tend to keep my mouth shut and let them continue to believe whatever they want to believe. Saves me work. So….umm, yes, yes indeed it was a, ahh…a Burroughs reference, yes.
Brian: It’s a well-known surprise that Thomas Pynchon is an admirer of your work. I don’t mean that as a criticism; I mean it came as a surprise to you too. You mentioned in our correspondence that Mason & Dixon really did a number on your weakening eyes when it came out; how’d you handle Against The Day?
Jim: Well, I like to say that M&D blasted my eyes out for good, but I’m not sure that’s exactly medically accurate. It was, however, the last full-length book I was able to read in any normal fashion. For Against the Day, I was lucky enough to receive the audio version (which is 42 CDs long!) It still took me a couple months to listen to it, but it was worth it. I think it contains some of the best—and most human—writing he’s ever done. It’s a stunning, overwhelming work which, as time goes on, will held up as the finest, most important work he’s done.
Part of my enthusiasm may be the result of the simple fact that he touches on so many themes that have always fascinated me—the mathematics of time travel, the 1893 World’s Fair, the early anarchist movement in America. Whatever he’s writing about, though, I find myself reading (or in this case listening) to him in awe. I simply cannot comprehend where this language comes from.
That he ever took any sort of interest in my goofy stories is something I still cannot understand. (By the way, page 633 in Against the Day is my favorite!)
FLOW MY TEARS, THE INTERTHING SAID
Brian: As a reporter & writer, how do you feel about the internet? I know it’s a complex question & I’m sure we’ve both been able to access things that might have eluded us before. At the same time, we both came up via fanzines & other tendrils of fugitive, underground culture & the process of putting things together was generally much slower, & mysterious.
Jim: Well, I have one of those love/hate relationships with the interthing. As time goes on, it’s becoming more hate than love, though. Because of the eyes, regular old book and periodical research is no longer a possibility for me. I can only work on the computer. So to that end, yeah, the interthing’s been a godsend. But it’s also cost me my job. Not only in terms of alternative papers, which are a dead form now—but also in terms of first person journalism. Why pay me to do it when there are millions of people out there doing the same thing for free?
The interthing’s also dealt a mighty blow to the publishing industry. Who wants to buy and read an entire book about, say, some historical period when you can just look it up in Wikipedia and get it in a paragraph? Who has time to read a long investigative piece in the New Yorker or Harpers when you can just scan the AP headlines? As a result, people aren’t buying books anymore, so publishers aren’t making any money, and so they aren’t paying authors, and they aren’t signing up new books.
And then there’s the whole issue of copyright. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen things I’ve done copied and pasted onto other sites. Time was, you’d get paid for such a thing.
It’s been bad news for musicians as well as writers. These kids today seem to think that they don’t need to pay for music, for writing—but in that case, how do they expect musicians or writers to keep producing if they can’t earn something for what they do?
Then of course there’s the much larger question of the compartmentalization of the culture—the reduction of everything to convenient bite-sized morsels. So let’s just say that, wonderful research tool or not, I’m praying for the day the electricity goes out.
INTELLECTUALS ARE THE SHOESHINE BOYS OF THE RULING ELITE
Brian:We’ve often joked, with reverence, about Killdozer… Can you tell us what they meant to you as a Wisconsinite? Have you ever had to “defend” Wisconsin or the midwest from what I’ll call provincial middlebrow New York condescension?
Jim: People still smirk when I talk about Wisconsin, but fuck ‘em. They’ve never been there and they don’t get it. I’m proud to be from Wisconsin, and always will be. I’m still tempted to move back, but I’d need to know how to drive. Wisconsin, see, is the weirdest fucking state in the nation, but it keeps it to itself—except when it comes to the likes of Ed Gein or Jeffery Dahmer. But Wisconsin also produced Orson Welles, so there.
Every week or two, my dad still sends me clippings from the local paper—just bizarre little stories that you don’t see anyplace else. Escaped monkeys, drunken farm accidents, pickle vat drownings and the like. So much of what goes on there—the rural horror—reads like a northern version of Flannery O’Connor. And I guess that’s where Killdozer comes in. So many of the stories they told in their grinding, droning songs were true.
I was lucky enough to be attending UW-Madison when Killdozer was based there, and so was able to see them dozens of times. They weren’t like any other punk rock band—they were a lot slower, a lot scarier, and a hell of a lot funnier—which pretty much sums up Wisconsin.
When I was living in Philly, I wrote a rock opera for them, based on Wisconsin Death Trip. Later they told me that they’d recorded a few of the songs, but weren’t happy with the performances, so they never did anything with them. I’d still love to hear them sometime.
THE POLITICS OF TIME
Brian:You were one of the few journalists to really take a hold of the Guiliani versus West Nile Virus pesticide spraying issue. Do you see any relation between that & the other manifestations of totalitarian rule in NYC? What happened?
Jim: Thing is, it’s not just New York—it’s spreading across the nation. There are very few places anywhere anymore where you can escape the billboards, the cameras, the smoking bans, where you can still find a little life, or some kind of active, viable underground culture that hasn’t been co-opted by Nike or Microsoft or Warner Brothers.
I’ve been trying to keep track of all this, to document it if just for myself, but there’s simply far too much of it, and it’s spreading far too quickly.
To put it simply, we’re doomed—but nobody seems to care much. So long as they’re safe, you know, they don’t mind giving up a few rights and freedoms. But of course they aren’t any safer than they’ve ever been. It’s all in Goldstein’s book, people! (Sorry—it’s an issue I get a little worked up about.)
Brian: I first started coming to New York alone in the early-mid 1980s, arriving at the Port Authority bus terminal. To say stepping out to 8th Avenue was enthralling is an understatement. Do you have any strong recollections of your early visits here, of Peepland or Show World?
Jim: I had only been to New York a few times before moving here—and those trips always had very specific goals—meeting someone for lunch or whatever. But two days after moving into the apartment, I visited Coney for the first time and it changed my life. The day after that I went to Times Square. It was still Times square then. The grindhouses were open, Show World was thriving and really, really scary—but in a wonderfully addictive way. Whores worked 42nd openly at noon, hustlers dressed like hustlers. After dark, 10th Ave. was overrun with 12 year-old hookers in lingerie. And the civilians were scared to go there. It was as it should’ve been.
I remember during one early visit stopping into the Greek diner at the corner of 42nd & 8th, directly across the street from Show World. Now, I’d been in Philly for about 3 years before coming up here, and Philly back then was a hell of a lot nastier than New York could ever hope to be. Still, this diner had a big sign posted just as you walked in the front door asking nicely that you check your guns at the counter—and suggesting that you keep an eye on your wallet. See, Philly might’ve been nasty, but it was a kind of low-rent nastiness. It lacked the exuberant style you found in Times Square in those days.
Jim: There was a time when Coney was called “The People’s Riviera.” Coney with luxury condos ain’t Coney. I’m gonna miss Ruby’s something awful.
THE ALL SEEING ARCATA EYE
Brian: Top Ten Residents records
Jim:: Just off the top of my head, I guess it would run:
Not Available (recorded 1974, released 1978)
Demons Dance Alone (2002)
God in Three Persons (1988)
Wormwood Live (1998)
Disfigured Night (Act II of Live at the Fillmore) (!997)
Animal Lover (2005)
Santa Dog (1972)
Third Reich and Roll (1976)
Commercial Album (1980)
But it keeps changing, and I haven’t heard the new one yet. Plus there are a bunch of obscurities and one-offs, like “The Replacement” and “Safety is a Cootie-Wootie” that I like a bunch, too.
Brian: Top Ten noir films
Jim: Just sticking to the classical period of noir films (Stretching it a bit to include Blast of Silence), it would probably be something like this:
Blast of Silence
Kiss Me Deadly
The Big Combo
The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery
And, of course, anything with Elisha Cook, Jr. in it.
Brian: Westerns: yay or nay?
Jim: Depends on the Western. I love Johnny Guitar, The Searchers, Warlock and The Wild Bunch, but don’t have the patience I should for Leone.
Brian: Tell us about David Shire, whom you thank in Noogie acknowledgments; I revere Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3 of course.
He’s in there because I was listening to his Pelham soundtrack (and the Residents’ River of Crime soundtrack) throughout the writing. For each book I choose a different soundtrack, and listen to nothing else until the book is finished. Sometimes this works better than others. The Shire soundtrack is amazing though—it’s almost nothing but brass and percussion, and reeks of 70s action films. It created the perfect mood for Noogie.
Brian: Favorite (more or less) True Crime Books; today mine might be Ringolevio by Emmett Grogan.
You Can’t Win, by Jack Black
Ed Gein: America’s Most Bizarre Murderer, by Robert Gollmar
Fallen Son, by Mike Walsh
The Arcata Eye crime blotter
The crime blotter of any other paper in America—especially those from smaller towns
Brian: If money was no object, what would you most like to write about? Personally, I’d love to see full books about Celine, Miller and film.
Jim: Funny you should mention that, as all three might actually happen. If I had my way, though, I’d keep writing pulp novels. And movie novelizations. But if I keep bringing them up, I think my agent might smack me.
Quitting The Nairobi Trio (2000)
The Buzzing (2003)
Ruining It For Everybody (2004)
“Subterranean Vaudeville” in New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg, Marshall Berman & Brian Berger eds. (2007)
Noogie’s Time To Shine (2007)
The Publisher thanks Jim Knipfel, for his time; the Shore Hotel, for memories by the hour, & WWIB fiction editor Beadel Debevoise for her introduction.