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A bug's life

Kockroach A Novel Tyler Knox William Morrow: 356 pp., $23.95

January 07, 2007|Benjamin Weissman | Benjamin Weissman is the author of two books of short fiction, most recently "Headless."

HOW is a fan of literature supposed to react when he picks up a novel called "Kockroach," which purports to be about a cockroach that finds itself transformed into a human being? Readers who care about Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" might not take kindly to this cockroach, named Kockroach, who, for no apparent reason, like Gregor Samsa in reverse, turns into a man and soon afterward becomes an underworld thug.

The publisher's press release claims that the novel has "the color of Damon Runyon's Broadway with the vicious backstabbers of 'The Sweet Smell of Success.' " Luckily (or unluckily, I'm not sure which), Tyler Knox's "Kockroach" has little to do with Kafka, save for its opening, but is simply a generic hard-boiled crime novel -- or a parody of one.

Kockroach is one of the central character's many names: He is also Jerry (or Jerzy) Blatta to his sidekick, Mite, who wears a green suit and is more insect-like than Kockroach, at least in appearance. When one hears the name "Jerzy," one's mind strays to novelist Jerzy Kosinski and his memorable protagonist Chauncey Gardiner, the innocent genius of "Being There." Jerzy Blatta navigates through "Kockroach" with similar success, rising to the top of the gangland food chain. He is violent and dangerous. All men fear him.

Knox sets "Kockroach" in a 1950s movie version of Manhattan. Chapters alternate between various points of view: that of Mite (in the first person), with his profoundly annoying street banter ("But hey, life ain't fair, missy," he is inclined to opine); his sheepish girlfriend Celia; and Blatta, which contains the novel's best parts, those that deal with all things arthropod -- genitalia, the complexities of molting, virtue and sin.

Here's Blatta visiting a prostitute: "The mating ritual of the cockroach differs slightly from species to species within the order, but is generally initiated by the female, who raises her wings and secretes powerful pheromones from a special membrane on her back."

Two pages of such sentences substitute for an actual sex scene. The dry language works and is comic, but then Knox breaks the deadpan with this: "Some cockroach songs comprise as many as six complex pulse trains, a melody more musically advanced, actually, than many Ramones songs." Too cute. And later, straining for a joke: "The male's excitator is small and bristly and yet irresistible to the female, like a cone of rocky road or a medical degree."

There are lots of gangsters, "mokes" and "mopes" in this novel, who talk in identical bad-guy vernacular, as if it were the law of pulp that all roughnecks must sound alike. At least one elevated voice would have offset the monosyllabic banter of the other male characters; as it is, the action and language are cartoonish, predictable, unengaging.

Unlike Kafka's dream logic and surrealist imagery, Knox's voice is clear, straightforward, plain-spoken. Unfortunately his guileless simplicity at times slips into something bordering on the tone of a children's story, with lots of narrative hand-holding in case the reader gets lost. Frequently Knox will let a scene play out and then indulge in unnecessary exposition, telling readers what they've just seen for themselves. A good edit would have sped the plow.

The book's strengths are in its comic touches: There are amusing passages on various biological functions (including adult potty humor), and it's nice to know that Knox spent a lot of time brooding about and watching cockroaches to get their behavior right.

There are some lovely bits, like Blatta discovering the smile: "All the people in the picture are doing something strange with their mouths. He stares in the mirror and stretches his mouth to show the teeth atop his mandibles. It is a fearsome sight but it must serve some purpose in human culture, maybe a warning. He practices his warning grimace for many minutes. He will wear it constantly, he tells himself, to keep danger away." At a diner, he inspects all the men's trousers and determines that the "worm between his legs" is bigger than theirs.

But unhappily the driving force of the novel is the immensely irritating, hoodlum-platitude oozing Mite, and the talkative Mite has trouble keeping in character. After paragraphs of clipped tough-guy-ese, he suddenly says: "She brushes the hair off her eyes and stares out at me from her prison of vast sadness." Beautiful, sure, but inconsistent. Another stumbling block is his frequent use of the endearment "palsy," which sounds fine when spoken aloud but, in print, suggests a medical condition.

This book has a heavy-handed gimmick to overcome -- namely, the inversion of Kafka's conceit -- and it does manage to do so. The problems are elsewhere -- chiefly, that Kockroach/Blatta is a blank, with no personality or emotional depth, which makes his evolution difficult to care about. Possibilities for other absurd literary reversals crowd the mind. How about Dick Moby, a wanderlust-struck whale beached on the sands of Malibu who hauls itself up and goes hunting for a grumpy, one-legged harpoon-slinger? Or Saint Emma Bovary and her earnest quest to give away her worldly goods and become a chaste and penitent nun?

Maybe I should be awarding points to Knox for the audacious attempt to plunder Kafka's masterpiece -- certainly, contemporary editors and publishers applaud such nerve -- but then I have an aversion to hubris. *

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