Jessica's Reviews > The Blow-off: A Novel

The Blow-off by Jim Knipfel
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's review
Aug 03, 2011

did not like it
bookshelves: read-in-2011

What happens when a spark of fear catches fire and engulfs an entire city in mass hysteria? That’s what Jim Knipfel explores in his eighth novel, The Blow-Off. Coincidentally timely, Knipfel explores the cause and effect of large-scale hysteria and the media sensationalism that helps prolong the panic and violence. While relevant and alluring in premise, the book suffers a sluggish plot and unsympathetic characters, making The Blow-Off a tedious read.

Curmudgeonly misanthropic Hank Kalabander writes a crime blotter for a small Brooklyn pennysaver newspaper. Though he’s never been able to hold down a job in the past, and his outlook on life makes George Carlin seem like an optimist, Hank holds an unexpected reverence for his job.

To Hank, the crime blotter was not simply a sadly neglected literary genre but a profoundly and uniquely American one as well. … If approached with the proper attitude, the crime blotter was a reflection of the entire culture at that particular moment in history. It said all that needed to be said about who we were and how we lived.

The attitude with which Hank approaches the blotter is one of cynicism and derision, the same perspective he has on society at large. His write-ups, impolite but witty, offer moments of dry humor in the book. For example, one of his entries pokes fun at a dim-witted would-be thief:

Spider-Man He Ain’t: Dieter Jeffries imagined he would be the cleverest burglar ever by (allegedly) crawling across the rooftops of the 8th St. brownstones in Park Slope last Monday afternoon and entering his intended victim’s home through the skylight. Unfortunately the 21-year-old Jeffries forgot to take one thing into consideration. When Andrew Braddock and his wife, Josephine, returned home that evening, they (allegedly) found Jeffries still unconscious on the kitchen floor, surrounded by the shattered glass of the skylight. Nothing, obviously, had been taken, and officers soon arrived on the scene. While in jail, Jeffries might want to consider a new diet.

One of his embellished entries, about a drunk who reports being mugged by a “hulking, hairy beast” who “smelled really bad,” gets more attention than Hank ever anticipates. With the unprovoked help of an ambitious blogger, the story makes its way to media outlets across New York. Before long, the residents of Brooklyn report sightings of Bigfoot throughout the city and begin turning on each other in an effort to find and kill the monster.

While it would be unfitting to compare fictional pandemonium over a falsified Bigfoot story with the real devastation occurring from the recent riots in London, it makes for an interesting time to read the book. Knipfel certainly exaggerates the ensuing chaos in The Blow-Off to make his point, but he adeptly captures the feeling of anarchy and disorder once a “groupthink” mentality takes over. As the panic rises, so does the lawlessness, and soon Brooklyn is all but burned down.

Knipfel, a former journalist himself, points a finger at the media for their part in intensifying the madness. As blogs and tabloids sensationalize the initial report, legitimate news sources hop on the bandwagon and propel the story into a nationwide buzz. Before long, cities across the country, even the world, begin reporting their own sightings of the menacing beast.

Despite the darkly funny and pertinent satire, The Blow-Off is weakened by slow plot movement and the offensive protagonist. Hank is more than politically incorrect: He’s outwardly racist and hateful. His vulgarity makes it impossible to draw sympathy, even when he’s the only voice of reason during the mass hysteria. In fact, none of the characters warrant much sympathy or support. Hank’s friend, carnival barker Rocky Roccoco, joins the hunt for the imaginary monster in an effort to bolster his declining sideshow business. The acerbic chatter between the old friends is mildly humorous, but does little to push the plot forward.

For a story with made-up monsters and riotous violence, the plot moves slowly and has little payoff. Society crumbles around Hank and the media circus stokes the fire, but that sense of tension and panic never makes its way to the reader. Hank limply tries to counter the madness and prove the nonexistence of Bigfoot, but spends more time complaining and dispensing insults. The captivating idea behind the story is buried beneath the lifeless characters.
A blow-off is a carnival ruse of drawing in unwitting patrons with promises of extraordinary sights—like the mermaid lady or two-headed dog—but ends in anticlimax. While likely not the author’s intention, The Blow-Off is a blow-off itself: a brilliant idea that ultimately ends in disappointment.

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