Review: Kockroach by Tyler Knox

Posted: February 7, 2007 in Book Reviews

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I can get really jaded after reading so many review books. The big publishers send me a lot of first novels and thrillers, with the occasional yummy literary fiction from a more established author thrown in for good measure. They also send a little nonfiction and memoir, for seasoning. After reading and reviewing a few of these I usually find myself pretty desperate for something really good, and really original, but at the same time I hardly believe anything is good or original after reading so many predictable, mainstream, cookie-cutter books. That’s a sad statement on publishing these days, but I don’t think it will really shock anyone to know a lot of books are just plain tripe, not worth the time and effort spent on them, and not likely to be remembered a week after they’re published.

The shelf life on a new work of fiction is only about three or four months, for the average book. After that point everyone’s moved onto something else. Unsold copies of these “older” books go back to the publisher, to either be remaindered and sold at cut-rate (authors get no royalties for these remainder books) or to be shredded and recycled. Such is the life of your average work of fiction, at least if it doesn’t manage to make a name for itself really quickly. It’s no wonder so many writers are turning to self-publishing. You have to do your own marketing and publicity either way (unless you’re a household name), and at least with self-publishing you control the inventory. That’s something.

Enter Tyler Knox’s brand new book Kockroach. It was like a breath of fresh air after a long, stale winter. Kockroach is basically a twist on Kafka’s classic novel Metamorphosis, turning the premise of that book on its head. Instead of a man morphing into an insect, in Knox’s book an insect turns into a man, to his dismay and occasional disgust. But, as one of the most adaptable creatures on earth, the cockroach very quickly learns how to imitate humans in order to survive and even thrive among them. “Greed and fear, greed and fear” is a statement Knox repeats over and over as the two primary motivating factors in a cockroach. Whether it’s motivating for just the cockroach is a whole other issue.

Most people the cockroach meets assume he’s foreign-born, trying desperately to assimilate. Knox uses the situation of this bug/man to make comparisons with a foreigner in modern American society. He covers all the bases, including language barriers (the cockroach imitates the patterns, before he eventually learn what the words mean), to clothing, to the inability to find a job due to the fact he can’t fully understand these “foreign” humans, etc. Often the humans see the cockroach’s strange antics but they tune him out, thinking it’s not their problem, so why should they worry? This is a damning indictment of modern society.

The one person to treat the cockroach differently is a small-statured man name “Mite,” or Mickey Pimelia. Mite gives the cockroach his name, Jerry Blatta, a name created partly due to the strange noises the man/cockroach makes. Mite is very street-wise. He lost his parents at a young age, forcing him to survive by his own wits. He shares his wisdom with Jerry Blatta, taking him under his wing, teaching him how to work the system until eventually the student surpasses the master.

There’s also a love interest in the book,which sounds weird but it’s actually developed very naturally. It’s not the conventional sort of love interest, but it definitely works in the context of the book. The woman’s name is Celia, and with her Jerry comes about as close to being fully human as he’s really capable of being. They share an on-again, off-again relationship throughout the book, providing Knox with an opportunity to explore the universality of love. As with everything in this novel, this is extremely well done.

Knox makes a lot of fairly damning statements on modern American society through Kockroach, playfully using the strange contrast of the cockroach vs. the human as his structure. It’s skillful and impressive, never hitting you over the head with a MESSAGE, always staying just this side of preachy by use of his wonderful humor. The scientific detail in the book is also remarkable. Knox obviously did a lot of research on his subject. Everything from eating habits to social habits to even sex is detailed, sometimes a little more than you want, but that goes with the territory. I had to do a little looking away at times. I don’t always have a very strong stomach, but the detail is there for those who do.

This is an extremely rich and wonderful book. I’d give it my highest recommendation as one of the most original, impressive debuts I’ve read in a while. It’s smart, funny and edgy, exactly what a book must be these days if it’s going to stay out of the shredder. In the end, Knox throws in a bit of irony I very much appreciated. The cockroach eventually ends up in politics. How’s that for justice?

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