Rufi Thorpe’s “The Knockout Queen” Is Sure To Be The Funniest, Hardest Hitting Novel of 2020
I knew I was going to love Rufi Thorpe’s The Knockout Queen the minute the protagonist’s neighbor and new friend Bunny Lampert, in the middle of offering a tour of her suburban McMansion, opens up a package of Pop Tarts, spreads butter between the two pastries, and eats them as a sandwich. The scene not only speaks to the odd, outrageous eating habits of teenagers; it also clearly illustrates the unpretentious, totally un-self aware nature of Bunny’s existence, and the observant, somewhat judgmental nature of the protagonist Michael.
This small, seemingly banal scene perfectly sets up the conflicts that will define Bunny and Michael’s young lives. The temptation and vulnerability of the body. How the mind wrestles between rational needs and impulsive desires that, at their worst, become violent. How society punishes women who transgress the norms of civility, who meet their downfall by dipping into the well of rage that is only excused in men — in particular, wealthy, straight, white men.
What a magnificent animal she was even now, all two hundred pounds of her, across the table from me, licking Cool Ranch dust from her fingers. “It’s kind of like long distance running,” she said. “You have to keep your mind under control. You can’t start thinking about when it’s going to be over or what hurts or you’ll lose it and your form will get sloppy and soon you’ll be winded and you’ll stop before you’ve given it everything you’ve got.”
Michael doesn’t meet his neighbor Bunny, the six foot tall “princess of North Shore,” until he had already spent several years secretly smoking in her side yard. They soon become inseperable, even when an act of catastrophic violence threatens to undue not only their friendship but their lives and families.
Thorpe brilliantly portrays the intermingling of boring, seemingly insignificant and petty high school drama with the high stakes of your experiences there molding you into who’ll you become once you’re out. There’s so much happening in this book, so many layers and threads and subtext, that it’s breathtaking both because of its complexity as well as how this doesn’t interfere with what an utter, absolute joy it is to read.
Because while The Knockout Queen is heavy in its themes and much of its events, it’s also warm and very, very funny. Michael is judgmental, but only so far that it points out the horror and absurdity of other people’s behavior, rarely letting these observations become how he’ll define these people forever. Bunny is much more complicated than she seems at first, guileless but self-loathing, focused yet completely out of control. Even the supporting characters are painted with depth and sensitivity: Bunny’s father, Ray Lampert — whom Michael refers to as Ray Lampert throughout the entire book — is selfish and manipulative, but with strong moments of love and almost a weird innocence; Michael’s aunt and guardian, Deedee, is trying to raise a child who isn’t hers and whom she can’t really afford, financially or emotionally, to support.
And despite all the violence and tragedy that form the skeleton of this book, it made me laugh constantly. It almost makes me never want to write, being nearly my Platonic ideal of what a book should look like: conversational, brisk, introspective, and most importantly, full of heart.
The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe, author of the previous novels The Girls of Corona Del Mar and Dear Fang, With Love, comes out on April 28. Please preorder it. You won’t regret it. (Indiebound, Amazon.)