Jim Knipfel

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Jim Knipfel
Knipfel in his Brooklyn, New York apartment in 2006
Knipfel in his Brooklyn, New York apartment in 2006
Born (1965-06-02) June 2, 1965 (age 55)
Grand Forks, North Dakota, United States[1]
OccupationNovelist, Journalist
Notable worksMemoir Slackjaw (1999)
Fiction The Buzzing (2003)

Jim Knipfel (pronounced Kah-nipfel; born June 2, 1965) is an American novelist, autobiographer, and journalist.

A native of Wisconsin, Knipfel, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, is the author of a series of critically acclaimed memoirs, Slackjaw, Quitting the Nairobi Trio, and Ruining It for Everybody, as well as two novels, The Buzzing and Noogie's Time to Shine. He wrote news stories, film and music reviews, the crime blotter, and feature articles until June 13, 2006 for the weekly alternative newspaper New York Press, where he was the only staff writer.

He also wrote the long-running and popular "Slackjaw" column for the Press. The first edition of "Slackjaw" appeared on October 25, 1987 in the Welcomat, a Philadelphia weekly (now renamed the Philadelphia Weekly), where he also reviewed restaurants and art exhibits.[2] "Slackjaw", a cynical, misanthropic look at daily life, has given Knipfel a small but loyal following of readers.

Youth and early career[edit]

Knipfel was born on June 2, 1965 in Grand Forks, North Dakota on the American air base where his father was then stationed.[1] Before he was a year old, the Knipfel family moved to Green Bay, Wisconsin where his father continued to work for the U.S. Air Force for many years and his mother worked in a variety of jobs.[3] In his teens, he was diagnosed with a rare genetic disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which would progressively render him blind in later years. His first memoir, Slackjaw, chronicles the deterioration of his eyesight.

In his teens, while the family was living in Green Bay, he suffered from bouts of severe depression. Between the ages of 14 and 22, Knipfel tried to kill himself twelve times.[2] After his final suicide attempt he was committed to a locked-door psychiatric ward in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he spent six months. He recounted his time there in his second memoir. In a Salon.com interview, he expressed bafflement at his multiple attempts at suicide: "I can't explain why I [attempted suicide] so many times, and how I did such a horrible job of it."[4] In a 2003 interview with Leonard Lopate he said he'd found happiness and was too interested in life to attempt suicide again.[5]

He briefly studied physics at the University of Chicago, and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he majored in philosophy.[2] When Knipfel and a friend nicknamed Grinch formed a campus political party called the Nihilist Workers Party they put together a flier promoting "telephone terrorism" that was published in the University of Wisconsin, Madison's student newspaper The Daily Cardinal without their permission. The prank earned a brief mention in Time magazine in 1987.[2][6][7]

Knipfel writes that he planned, attempted, and committed many petty crimes in his youth. He wrote of a failed attempt to steal the corpse of the notorious American killer and graverobber Ed Gein from the graveyard at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison.[8] However, Gein was buried in Plainfield, Wisconsin, some 80 miles north of the hospital where he died.

In 1990, Knipfel moved to Brooklyn, New York with his then-wife Laura.[9] He continued to write his weekly "Slackjaw" column for Philadelphia's Welcomat and tried to get the editor of the alternative weekly New York Press, John Strausbaugh, interested in publishing "Slackjaw", but the Press did not want to share the column with the Welcomat. Knipfel kept "Slackjaw" at the Welcomat out of loyalty to his editor Derek Davis, but he began occasionally contributing articles and music reviews to New York Press;[10]

In 1993, after Davis was pushed out by Welcomat management, Knipfel moved Slackjaw to the New York Press.[10] Shortly thereafter Knipfel became a receptionist at the paper's offices, and later a full-time columnist and staff writer.[2]

Slackjaw: a memoir[edit]

At first Knipfel was dead set against writing a memoir, and was "content to publish in small publications" and was quite "happy with the sheer disposability of newspaper writing", however, when Penguin Putnam editor David Groff offered him a book deal in 1997, after a decade of writing his column for New York Press, he accepted, rationalizing "that maybe there wasn't anything all that wrong with leaving something a little more solid behind".[11][12] The first draft of Slackjaw was completed in two weeks and at 500 pages long it was largely a collection of several dozen independent stories drawn from his columns. Although Knipfel could not discern a greater theme in the first draft, his editor pointed out that the memoir generally chronicled his journey towards blindness. With this theme in mind, Knipfel rewrote several drafts of Slackjaw, "looking at the stories in a different way and trying to find something that flows and has a rhythm", which finally produced a leaner memoir of which 60% of the content was fresh.[4][13]

To promote Slackjaw, Knipfel went on a grueling 10-city tour, which was quite taxing physically due to his progressive vision loss. At readings, he read from computer printouts with large letters, using a magnifying glass and a bright, direct light from a strong lamp.[11]

Slackjaw was well received by critics and was a popular success. A much-publicized blurb was provided by the reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon, who received the galley proofs of this and subsequent works, describing Slackjaw as "an extraordinary emotional ride, through the lives and times of reader and writer alike, maniacally aglow with a born storyteller's gifts of observation".[5] Roger K. Miller in The Chicago Sun-Times described Slackjaw as "a volume to set opposite all those chirpy, slurpy books on maximizing your potential, enhancing your self-esteem and accessing your inner powers" and Ellen Clegg in The Boston Globe summed it up succinctly as "a disease book with an attitude", elaborating that "Knipfel seems content to let the inner felon emerge."[14][15]

Subsequent memoirs[edit]

After Slackjaw, Knipfel wrote two additional memoirs, Quitting the Nairobi Trio (2000) and Ruining It for Everybody (2004). In contrast to his first book tour, Knipfel remained in New York City to promote Quitting the Nairobi Trio, a chronicle of the six months he spent in a locked psychiatric ward in Minneapolis following his last suicide attempt.[11] Critics were largely impressed with Knipfel's second memoir, although there was one recurrent caveat: the chapters containing descriptions of Knipfel's personal hallucinations while at the ward did not work.[16][17] Ellen Clegg in The Boston Globe believed that while personal hallucinations are "important to the beholder [they] don't always translate in the wider world" and Daphne Merkin in The New York Times expressed how her interest flagged "only when [Knipfel] went into lengthy descriptions of his wearyingly vivid dreams".[18][19] In the introduction to Quitting the Nairobi Trio, Knipfel explains that although he has had hallucinations in the past, "they've always faded in time", and yet the hallucinatory events of those first few days, as he settled into the psychiatric ward, are easier for him to recall than very recent events, because these hallucinations mysteriously have "a tenacity and clarity unattributable to any simple unconscious reaction in the brain's biochemistry".[20]

A few years after his third memoir was published, Knipfel stated in a 2007 interview with Leonard Lopate that he was finished writing memoirs, and instead would concentrate on fiction. His sentiment on his memoirs was: "I had three of them out before I was forty, and I think that's just asinine."[21]


He is fond of pulp fiction and his fiction has been categorized as such.[22]

Several other attempts at fiction by Knipfel were rejected before his novel The Buzzing clicked with a publisher; his first novel was released by Vintage Books in 2003. The Buzzing is about Roscoe Baragon, an aging journalist reduced to working the kook beat, who investigates an elaborate cover-up; the storyline was noted to contain similarities to Knipfel's former job at New York Press and Knipfel has admitted that "Roscoe, to put it simply, represents what I would like to be."[23] Critical reception was mixed.[24] According to Emily White in The New York Times, the novel entertains, however, "there are moments when the narrative stumbles or the dialogue slows".[25]

Knipfel's second novel is Noogie's Time to Shine. His third novel Unplugging Philco was released in April 2009 by Simon & Schuster [26] In 2010 Simon & Schuster published his short story collection These Children Who Come at You With Knives and Other Fairy Tales as well as his novel The Blow-Off in 2011.

Slackjaw moves to Electron Press[edit]

In June 2006, Knipfel was fired by the New York Press, concluding thirteen years with the paper.[27] His "Slackjaw" column continued at Electron Press, yet published exclusively online with a much diminished readership.[28] Since Electron Press began publishing "Slackjaw" in October 2006, some of Knipfel's most notable columns have been, "History Lesson, Pt. 986", introducing Slackjaw's history; and "You Must Be Very Proud", about the inauguration of New York's first legally blind and first black governor, David Paterson.[29][30] In an April 2008 column, "The Statistics of Contempt", Knipfel harangued mothers of Park Slope, Brooklyn for their inconsiderate use of their baby strollers on the local sidewalks,[31] provoking a strong reaction from readers according to Knipfel: "I can't remember anything like this - at least not since the early days".[32] The Brooklyn blog Brownstoner wrote that Knipfel's "new rant about Park Slope stroller culture ... sets the bar high for future diatribes on the subject".[33]


Knipfel often spotlights death in his writing and has written columns complaining that obituaries do not do justice to notable people. He has complained about excessive media coverage of Heath Ledger's death and also wrote about Charlton Heston's obituary and, for a number of years, has written an annual column on notable passings.[34][35][36][37][38][39]

Knipfel's childhood in Green Bay, Wisconsin is the subject of many of his essays, as well as his memoirs. He often recalls pleasant or defining moments from his youth, usually describing the state of his vision loss in those years.[2][40]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Jim Knipfel (1999). Slackjaw. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
  • Jim Knipfel (2000). Quitting the Nairobi Trio. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
  • Jim Knipfel (2004). Ruining It for Everybody. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
  • Jim Knipfel (2003). The Buzzing: A Novel. New York: Vintage Books.
  • Jim Knipfel (2007). Noogie's Time to Shine: A Novel. New York: Virgin Books.
  • Jim Knipfel (2009). Unplugging Philco. Simon & Schuster.
  • Jim Knipfel (2010). These Children Who Come at You with Knives, and Other Fairy Tales. Simon & Schuster.
Short stories and essays


  1. ^ a b Ruining It for Everybody (2004), pp. 9–12
  2. ^ a b c d e f Clifford Thompson, ed. (2005). "Knipfel, Jim". Current Biography Yearbook, 2005 (66th annual cumulation ed.). New York: H. W. Wilson. pp. 294–298. OCLC 64391316.
  3. ^ Ruining It for Everybody (2004), p. 78
  4. ^ a b Christopher Dreher (2004-07-27). "Dark victory". Salon.com. Archived from the original on 2008-03-07. Retrieved 2008-05-01.
  5. ^ a b Knipfel, Jim (2003-04-15). "Jim Knipfel shares his novel, The Buzzing". The Leonard Lopate Show (Interview). Interviewed by Leonard Lopate. New York: WNYC. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30.
  6. ^ "Toll-Free Woes". Time. 1987-01-26. Retrieved 2008-04-01.
  7. ^ Slackjaw (1999), pp. 34–38
  8. ^ Quitting the Nairobi Trio (2000), pp. 220–221
  9. ^ Ruining It for Everybody (2004), pp. 52–53
  10. ^ a b Slackjaw (1999), pp. 129–130
  11. ^ a b c Robert Fleming (2000-05-22). "PW Talks with Jim Knipfel". Publishers Weekly. 247 (21). p. 86.
  12. ^ Ruining It for Everybody (2004), pp. 99–100
  13. ^ Geeta Sharma-Jensen (1999-02-15). "Fate betrayed Knipfel, but he's not complaining". The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  14. ^ Roger K. Miller (1999-02-14). "A comic raging against darkness". The Chicago Sun-Times.
  15. ^ Ellen Clegg (1999-02-11). "'Slackjaw' a disease book with an attitude". The Boston Globe.
  16. ^ Laura Ciolkowski (2000-07-30). "IN BRIEF; Memoir". The Washington Post.
  17. ^ Michael Hopkins (2000-05-14). "Psych ward sojourn offers entertaining peek into the human mind". The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
  18. ^ Ellen Clegg (2000-06-02). "Knipfel's latest is a study in self-destruction". The Boston Globe.
  19. ^ Daphne Merkin (2000-06-25). "If These Walls Could Talk". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-04-04.
  20. ^ Quitting the Nairobi Trio (2000), pp. 4–5
  21. ^ Knipfel, Jim (2007-12-18). "Jim Knipfel: Noogie's Time to Shine". The Leonard Lopate Show (Interview). Interviewed by Leonard Lopate. New York: WNYC.
  22. ^ Writers tell the secrets of their workspace - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review[permanent dead link]
  23. ^ Laurence Daw (2003-05-20). "Laurence Daw interviews Jim Knipfel; The Buzzing". The Modern Word.
  24. ^ Irving Malin (2003-06-22). "The Buzzing.(Book Review)". The Review of Contemporary Fiction.
  25. ^ Emily White (2003-03-30). "The Nut Beat". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-05-01.
  26. ^ https://www.amazon.com/Unplugging-Philco-Novel-Jim-Knipfel/dp/1416592849
  27. ^ Jim Knipfel (2008-06-08). "The Age of No Consent". Electron Press.
  28. ^ Dylan Stableford (2006-06-12). "Longtime Columnist Jim Knipfel Out at NYPress". Mediabistro.com.
  29. ^ Jim Knipfel began writing the Slackjaw column for Philadelphia's Welcomat in 1987
  30. ^ Gothamist: Jim Knipfel, Author Archived 2008-05-16 at the Wayback Machine
  31. ^ Jim Knipfel (2008-04-27). "The Statistics of Contempt". Electron Press.
  32. ^ Andy Heidel (2008-05-06). "Slackjaw Skewers Stroller Set -Take Back the Island Launches Book Club". Mediabistro.com. Archived from the original on 2008-05-16.
  33. ^ Gabby (2008-05-06). "Slope Stroller Overabundance Making One Guy a Shut-In". Brownstoner. Archived from the original on 2008-05-10.
  34. ^ Jim Knipfel. "BOOK OF THE DEAD: Last Round-Up, 2005". New York Press. Archived from the original on 2008-02-04.
  35. ^ Jim Knipfel. "THE BOOK OF THE DEAD: From Pooh to the Pope". New York Press. Archived from the original on 2006-02-18.
  36. ^ Jim Knipfel (2007-01-07). "2006: The Year in Death". Electron Press.
  37. ^ Jim Knipfel (2008-01-06). "Obituary Round-Up 2007". Electron Press.
  38. ^ Jim Knipfel (2008-02-03). "Keith Who?". Electron Press.
  39. ^ Jim Knipfel (2008-04-13). "He Was Better Than You". Electron Press.
  40. ^ Quitting the Nairobi Trio (2000), pp. 149–151

External links[edit]