- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 20, 2007

KOCKROACH

By Tyler Knox

William Morrow, tk, 356 pages

Tyler Knox, first-time novelist and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, gets right to the point this way:

“As Kockroach, an arthropod of the genus Blatella and of the species germanica, awakens one morning from a typical dreamless sleep, he finds himself transformed into a large, vile creature.”

In other words, one day a bug wakes up and finds that he has been transformed into a human.

How simple. How startling. How captivating. In my little corner of the book universe, where hundreds of books tumble into my office during a single week but only a very few get noticed let alone reviewed, Mr. Knox’s “Kockroach” virtually pole-vaulted to the top of the pile. A few thoughts: What kind of strutting punk takes on Franz Kafka? And what kind of book could he have written?

Well, having little information about the author, identified only as a well-schooled (see above) individual who now lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two dogs (and why speculate ad hominem anyway?) that leaves the narrative. And, guess what, it works. On many levels. And it is funny in the bargain.

The setting is New York during the 1950s, here a noirish New York where an active underworld of scammers, prostitutes and mob bosses operate along the meanest of streets. It is in a fleabag hotel along Times Square that, without explanation, Kockroach awakens to find himself transformed. And like Gregor Samsa, the cockroach at the center of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” the transformation is no less sudden. In each case the protagonist’s new state of being is presented as a fait accompli, without explanation. Readers are asked to simply suspend disbelief.

In Kockroach’s case, readers get a little boost by simply following the metamorphosed bug’s lead. Thinking about his predicament, he steels himself for what is to come. He thinks, “When his right leg was pulled off by a playful mouse, he hadn’t rolled over and whined, he had scampered away and learned to limp on five legs until he grew a new limb with his next molt. Deal with it, that is the cockroach way. When food is scarce, cockroaches don’t complain, first they eat their dead, then they eat their young, then they eat each other.”

Kockroach, also known as Jerry Blatta or, when trying to fit into a Greek mob, Jerzy Blatta, gets used to his new body. Before long, it becomes clear that the novel’s trajectory will follow Kockroach’s effort to make it big in his new world and in his new skin. Companionship is rarely sought but inevitable, and the colorful lineup would be at home in an Elmore Leonard novel.

There is Mickey “Mite” Pimelia, a gangster with a past who sees Kockroach as an up-and-comer who can help him score bigtime in various criminal enterprises. There is also Celia, a crippled telephone operator who is Mite’s main squeeze but who is attracted to the cool and aloof Kockroach. Other assorted lowlifes come in and out of Kockroach’s life as he makes his ascent first through the underworld as an enforcer, then through the world of business manipulating real estate deals, finally trading in his usual drab brown clothing for a white ascot and a Senate run.

There is astute writing here. And memorable flourishes. “At first he assumed that Mite wanted exactly what he himself wanted: money, power, sex, shrimp, sex.” On humans: “They are a species, he has discovered, governed by emotion. Some of these emotions he understands, emotions such as greed. Greed is the second strongest of all cockroach emotions. His incessant hunger is merely a manifestation of his boundless greed, for a cockroach always hungers, always, even with its belly full and its uric acid spent.”

And my favorite, Kockroach looking for a job at a bank after a temporary downturn in fortune:

“‘Then fill this out.’ [The woman behind the desk] hands him a piece of paper. ‘And don’t leave out the references. Three. We do nothing without references.’

“Kockroach looks at the sheet of paper in his hand, covered with human writing and long blank lines. He looks up at the woman, who is staring at him through those clear glasses.

“‘I don’t read,’ he says.

“‘I’m very sorry to hear that,’ says the woman, without sounding very sorry at all. ‘But if you don’t read, what makes you think you can work at a bank?’

“He leans over, tickles her chin. ‘Because I can count.’”

Much that transpires here bears little or no resemblance to Kafka’s masterpiece. Readers expecting to find the wrenching drama of Gregor Samsa pitiably straining to hear his sister Grete play the violin might be disappointed. Yet there is room here for much conjecture about what it all means or the fact that it may not “mean” anything at all.

Having said that, Kockroach is his own smart force to be contended with. He is we, and we aren’t above greed, base betrayals and bad food choices. Not a pretty picture? As Kockroach would say, deal with it. But before you do, first read this fine book.

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