One review in a single style of Rufi Thorpe’s brilliant new novel, without boxing metaphors

Martin McClellan

April 28, 2020

The other day I stumbled across a Zillow listing for a very strange house in Virginia. Perhaps you saw it as well, but if not, I would peg the aesthetic as lesser Bond villain with taste that outweighed ability and an accountant's budget. What stood out to me, despite some of the more pleasing vibes of the oddly Aztecian entryway, was how unfinished and terrible the more normal parts of the house are.

A beautiful modern house done well evokes feelings of simplicity and austerity, and perhaps a mini-versailles might elicit sensual longing for ornate luxury. But most houses outside the standard American box — any attempt at a neighborhood San Simeon or Falling Water or whatever architect's wet dream is currently wrapped in flapping blue plastic next door — might look interesting on paper, but when sat with for a moment just fail. It puts a fine point on a very human trait: the desire to build something grand far outweighs the ability to imagine what living it in would really feel like.

Bunny Lampert, one of the two principal characters in Rufi Thorpe's third novel The Knockout Queen, out today from Knopf, lives in such a house. She lives there with her father, a cheeseball alcoholic real estate agent who has the land game locked up in their Southern California coastal community. Her mother, who apparently designed the house and decorated it, is now dead, and although you can't feel her presence in the Bunny's life, you sure as hell feel her absence.

We enter the house, and Bunny's life, through the voice and view of Michael, Bunny's neighbor who escapes his aunt / guardian by dropping into Bunny's fenced side yard to smoke by the trash cans. One day, Bunny catches him and invites him inside the house he's been fascinated with for years.

She led me upstairs, taking bites of her Pop-Tart sandwich along the way, and showed the the spare room, decorated in an Oriental style with a disturbing red satin bedspread embroidered with cranes, and the connected bathroom, which had a shiny black vanity and sink, a black toilet, and black floors. They were ready for Madame Butterfly to commit suicide in there at any time. While the house was uncluttered, I noticed it was not exactly clean. Gray trails marked the highest traffic routes on the white carpet, and the sink in the all-black bathroom was spangled with little explosions of white toothpaste.

We live in the houses we've built, and unless we build them well and with intention and knowledge that we will be in them, they become a relic of a dream we once inhabited.

Bunny and Ray are subsistence living in someone else's dream. They're not really living at all.

Bunny is not a bad girl, really. She's six-foot-something and painfully awkward. She's a gifted athlete, a volleyball player, who idolizes athletic women. To Micheal, she is painfully beautiful. Micheal is gay, and the relationship he and Bunny develop is a loving, luxuriant free-fall into the straight-girl / gay-boy archetype. Their love for each other is immediate and certain, and carries with it a familiarity so natural that they don't even notice that their relationship hasn't earned the intimacy is assumes.

Meanwhile, they're living through hell of high school wasteland, in a sunburned rumor mill. It's a small town parked on the curb of one of the world's largest airports, sliced off from the sprawl of Los Angeles. It's a neat trick of real estate, a postage stamp of little lots, all perfectly positioned to meet the cross section of restricted supply and beach proximity.

Michael has his own struggles, living with his aunt after his mother was imprisoned for domestic violence. He shares a room with his homophobic cousin. He cruises Grindr for anonymous hookups.

Both Michael and Bunny are reeling from trauma, and both have comparative trajectories and arcs as they bounce around their lives, reacting to people acting poorly; acting poorly themselves.

You will find out about Michael's behavior, about things that happen to him, about what Bunny does (and what it is said she did that she hadn't). What I've written above is about as close to a plot summary as we get around these parts, and to go further would be to reveal things that are not spoilers, per se, but betrayals. I'd be telling someone else's story for them, and it should be theirs to tell.

Because Rufi Thorpe builds characters you know, with verisimilitude, honesty, and a genuine affection and appreciation for people who are imperfect. Who are, at times, much worse than that. In re-reading parts of the book for this review, I was struck by how many of the little forgotten stories felt not contained in a grand narrative I had once experienced, but felt like little stories from my own life, stories I remember from a high school friend. They have become part of my personal experience.

I wrote the most elaborate, and gushiest, review of my critical life about Thorpe's last novel Dear Fang, With Love, and I confess after a little distance, I wondered if I had gotten something wrong. Was I reading a surplus of talent into a novel that just spoke to me in the right way at that right moment? Had I imagined or dreamed the immediate, visceral, nearly alchemical attraction I had to that book and Thorpe's amazing writing?

When we received the preview copy of The Knockout Queen I set it aside. I told myself it was to wait for a time when I could fully engage with it, but there was that nagging concern that I'd find it lacking. What if it didn't stand up to my experience with Fang?

Have you ever rented an apartment, or bought a condo or a house, and you only see it for such a brief time before committing to the space? You don't really know how you're going to react to it again — what if you've made a terrible mistake? I'm sure there are people who have. So far, in my life, I've always sighed with relief when I'm finally inhabiting the space, pleased with how much it feels like home.

After I read The Knockout Queen I went back to Thorpe's earlier work. I re-read The Girls From Corona Del Mar, and, squinting through one eye at first, I re-read Dear Fang, With Love as well.

It was just as I remembered, and I feel my over-the-top review did it justice. In that review, I said "Thorpe is a major talent, and reading her work will bring to mind other writers who deftly control their universes with such clarity and acuity, like Donna Tartt or Ann Patchett."

Why had I picked those authors, specifically? First, like Tartt, Thorpe can take a topic that might not seem on the surface unputdownable, and make it just that.

Like Patchett, she weaves a complex story full of humanity and insight into people and how they really exist in the world.

They are also remarkable wordsmiths, and Thorpe has their knack for a turn of phrase, for something brilliantly observed.

Here's how she talks about Bunny's once-friend, then nemesis, Ann Marie:

Ann Marie was a special kind of being, small, cute, mean, glossy, what might in literary terms be called a "nymphet," but only by a heterosexual male author, for no one who did not want to fuck Ann Marie would be charmed by her. She was extra, ultra, cringe-inducingly saccharine, a creature white-hot with lack of irony. She was not pretty, but somehow she had no inkling of this fact, and performed prettiness so well that boys felt sure she was.

When she complained that her mother had bought her the wrong socks and these ones looked cheap, every girl around her looked down at her own feet and realized she was wearing the wrong ones. Ann Marie took herself so seriously that even the smallest, most pedestrian details of her life were charged. You had to be careful because Dr. Pepper Chapstick was actually chemically addicting. Your underwear should be at least as expensive as your shirt. Using vanilla scented products made you irresistible to boys because subliminally they wanted to eat you. The sense of drama, the momentousness of the mundane, was intoxicating to the teen girls around her, and even if they didn't believe everything she said (she was aggressively pro-enema, for instance) talking to her made them feel important. Ann Marie was a creature specially adapted to the unique and fleeting habitat of a white, suburban high school.

Thorpe always has a way into a character that makes them known to you, of bringing small details, humor, and observation to light, that you find yourself remembering the person as if they were in your own life.

It allows a level of intimacy, of knowing, of actually falling in love with the flawed people who inhabit the pages. Thorpe's gift and well-honed talent is clear, palpable, and, for me, undeniable.

She has reached a rare status of authors for me: I will read anything she writes.

I've interviewed Rufi Thorpe twice, and had some friendly back-and-forths with her, so my review of The Knockout Queen comes with some affection for the person who wrote it, beyond just the admiration for her craft and work. I believe in disclosure, and you can weigh if you think such things have influenced my review.

But I'm extra curious now, locked in our architectures all the time, about launching a book during stay at home orders. Thorpe was supposed to be appearing Thursday at the Elliott Bay Book Company, which is obviously not happening. She has been appearing on many streams, on Instagram stories. You can follow her on Twitter.

I wrote that over-the-top review of her last book because I wanted to be an advocate for a work I fell in love with. For a book that moved me, and engaged me in a rare way. I feel just as strongly about The Knockout Queen. Perhaps the role of the critic should be to make sure you understand the little things you may not like about this book, or to set a stage for justifying heaps of praise.

But without such scaffolding as I had in that very meta review, where I affectionately mocked review styles while praising her work (Hmmm, maybe for her next book I'll write in the style of Instagram reviewers. They didn't exist last time....), I just have what I hope comes across as an honest moment: what an opportunity we have now, to show an author some appreciation during a time when all of us are under so much. What an opportunity we have to show that publishing can still have breakout hits when bookstores are closed (and, you should, of course, order The Knockout Queen from your favorite local indie shop).

I hope you'll take a chance on The Knockout Queen — there are amazing pleasures to be had in its journey. I hope you love it as much as I did. I hope Rufi Thorpe writes a shelfful of books. I've already made space for them.

Books in this review:
  • The Knockout Queen
    by Rufi Thorpe
    April 28, 2020
    288 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He’s a novelist (his first, California Four O’Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

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