Entertainment & the Arts: Friday, January 05, 2007

“Kockroach” by Tyler Knox

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

The premise here sounds like a high-concept Hollywood pitch: “It’s Damon Runyon meets Kafka, except instead of a man becoming an insect, a cockroach becomes … a man, a gangster! It’s got violence, girls, atmosphere, and it’s smart, too.”

In the opening pages, I thought Tyler Knox’s first novel, “Kockroach,” felt gimmicky, the unfortunate product of a writer’s workshop, but then I started getting into it, and I was hooked. Literary fiction is not often this wildly fun.

Kockroach, our eponymous anti-hero, awakes in an awkward human body. He is not overly troubled by this transformation because cockroaches, “awesome coping machines,” do not waste time dwelling on the past. They live in the present.

“Deal with it, that is the cockroach way. … Whenever a cockroach sits back and wonders what it’s all about, he gets stepped on.” Driven by primitive impulses, and unrestrained by morality, Kockroach is well-equipped for success in the criminal world, and eventually the business world and beyond.

His guide is sometime narrator Mickey Pimelia, known as Mite, a cynical runt who has been kicked around his whole life and is always looking for someone strong to latch on to. Enter Kockroach, with his brown suit, dark glasses and superhuman strength.

“Let others fill their hearts with the lonely struggle to reach great heights,” Mite says, “I need someone to carry me.” In a symbiotic relationship, they rule the 1950s underworld of New York’s Times Square, which Mite describes as the “Times Square of pinball palaces and shady dance clubs, of the grand old Sheraton-Astor and the fleabag junkie haunts what surrounded it, of the Broadway theaters where never I set foot and the Roxy burlesque, with its second-rate strippers playing to a third-rate crowd, where certainly I did.”

Knox shifts voices and perspective, from hard-boiled to modern-hip, dropping allusions to people as varied as Richard Nixon and the Ramones. You can tell when an author is having a good time, and Knox has a ball.

He has done his research on arthropods and also on Homo sapiens. Like Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” this is a story about what it means to be human.

Kockroach finds that no matter how much he conquers and consumes, he is still hungry. “His greed has concomitantly grown to monstrous dimensions, whispering, imploring, shouting in his ear that he doesn’t have enough, not enough, that he needs more, more, everything.” Mite, on the other hand, craves the comfort of a saner existence.

Though the ending is predictable — Kockroach shares the same ultimate ambition as Don Corleone and many gangsters-cum-businessmen before him — it still works. Nearly everything about this portrait of the cockroach as a young human is artfully executed and signals the emergence of a promising new novelist.


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