by Jeremy Lott

In my hometown in the northwest corner of this state sits a bad pizza parlor. "Bad" because the pizza is usually burnt and the service is mediocre, at best. I once landed a genuine case of food poisoning there, and yet I keep going back. I continue to return out of an irrational fascination: How does a restaurant this bad manage to stay in business?

This tendency to obsess on why things don't work kept me glued to the pages of Jim Knipfel's first fiction novel, The Buzzing. Roscoe Baragon, the novel's main character, is certainly not worth the price of admission, and his creator, Knipfel, who writes for the New York Press, doesn't try to pretend otherwise. At the age of 42, and 45 pounds overweight, Baragon is a once-great reporter who "no longer [has] the energy, the drive, or the cold viciousness it [takes] to get ahead in this business." He's also a slob, a hack, and a borderline recluse. His parents are gone and he has only one good friend, Emily Roschen, a gorgeous drinking buddy from the city morgue.

As the story opens, we learn that Baragon has managed to survive in the news biz by taking on the "kook beat" at an otherwise boring New York daily. He writes about people who claim that ghosts are haunting museums or that aliens have stolen their plumbing fixtures or that they've been kidnapped by the state of Alaska.

Actually, it began as more of a slump than a beat. Because Baragon tended to treat "the crazies" more respectfully than most reporters did, and because fielding a few crank phone calls was easier than burning shoe leather, he fell into the pattern of writing up oddball stories, drinking far too much, and going to sleep by the flickering light of bad Japanese movies. Along the way, something happened. When Emily drags Baragon home from the bar one night, he confesses his greatest fear is "that someday... I might... just... be... right," that the crazies are onto something.

The plot is anorexic and dizzy. It traces Baragon's retreat from reality, from intimacy, from life, as he wraps disconnected strands of personal experience and press clippings into his own conspiracy theory. He realizes that a race of underwater-dwelling humanoids are triggering earthquakes, buying up New York property, and using bums for experimentation; and that he needs to find Godzilla to battle these evil sea people. Worse, Baragon suspects that Emily and Everyone Else are in on it.

Knipfel paints a very thin veneer of unreality over the last part of the book. Some of the lines of Baragon's acquaintances are just weird and vague enough to make you wonder if he's onto something. This is played up in the book's advertising to appeal to X-philes. The bio explains that Knipfel lives in Brooklyn: "That much he knows." (Yeah, and the truth is way the hell out there, too.) The book refrains from saying outright what readers will be able to see: The guy has lost it.

Chronicling degeneration is old hat for Knipfel, whose interests--judging from his pieces in the New York Press--are almost as offbeat as Baragon's. His first two books were about his own life: how he went blind, tried to kill himself, and spent a year locked up under close observation. Comparisons of Baragon with Knipfel would be interesting, if you go in for that sort of thing. The difference between Knipfel's biographies and The Buzzing is that the others had a plot imposed by real events, while this book struggles to find its way.