Noogie’s current job is loading ATMs. And one day he discovers that he can slip a twenty or two or three into his pocket and it won’t be missed, primarily because the company for which he works is based in Florida. After about a year, the accountants notice some missing money, about five million dollars worth of missing money, and Noogie decides to go on the run.
The rest of the first half of the book takes Noogie on a winding journey down the back roads of the U.S. until he winds up in Miami Beach. And it’s in Miami Beach that he will die drunk, choking on his vomit, on the couch in the living room of the place he’s renting. The second half of the book deals with the police trying to solve his death and the Feds trying to find all of the money.
So goes Noogie’s Time To Shine, the new novel from Jim Knipfel.
It’s obvious what Knipfel is aiming at: that dark comedy with quirky characters just living on the edge of respectability. He’s visiting worlds trod often by Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen. There’s just one problem. He doesn’t have the skill of Leonard and Hiaasen.
The essence of good Leonard and Hiaasen, especially Leonard, is not the plot, but the characters. Their characters don’t just have quirks, they have personalities. They may live on just the wrong side of the law, but they’re easily someone who would live next door to you. And for the most part, you’d probably be best friends. The plot comes from the character. Whatever scrape they get in happens because it’s supposed to happen. It’s natural.
But that’s not the case with Knipfel’s character Noogie. Knipfel supposedly based his story on a real incident of ATM theft. And it feels that way. It’s like he had this great idea, some slob takes money from an ATM a twenty at a time, and created a character to match the crime.
Noogie’s not sympathetic, no matter what Knipfel tells us about him. And it is as if Knipfel can’t quite make up his mind what to do with Noogie. Noogie seems kind of slow. At times it is like he’s mentally challenged. Yet later in the book we discover that he’s a graduate of NYU’s film school. But except for an encyclopedic knowledge of film – he uses Steve McQueen movie character names as his aliases while on the run – there’s nothing about Noogie to indicate he was able to graduate high school, let alone college. And it’s curious that a guy who’s seen as many movies as Noogie would have absolutely no idea what a truck stop is, yet we’re supposed to be blown away by Noogie’s first trip ever to a truck stop.
The novel is not without other problems. The reader’s never quite sure of the time period of the book. Noogie talks about being in New York City after 9/11, but he’s still watching VHS tapes and when he’s on the run, he’s on the run in first a van from 1985, then in one from1982, and he’s wild about all of the cassette tapes he can buy at the truck stop. It’s as if none of the characters have ever heard of a computer, much less used one, and if this is supposed to circa 2007, it would seem the cops would be using cell phones.
There are portions of the novel that do work. The second half of the book is easily the best. Noogie’s dead and the main characters are Miami Beach Detective Stone, FBI agents Meyer and Ludkvasen, and Kenny Swanson, Noogie’s roommate. These characters come close to approximating what Knipfel’s really after, and it’s at this time the story has a really good Leonard/Hiaasen vibe working.
But it’s too far into the book when this happen. And by this time you probably won’t care what happens to anyone.
I started out wanting to like this book. I always want to like a book I’m reading. But Knipfel’s novel never captured my imagination. I could just not get to where he wanted me to be. It was like he was trying too hard. And that’s the one thing you don’t get when reading Leonard or Hiaasen. You don’t get the sense that they’re trying to be cute or whimsical or dark or funny. Their stories just are. There’s no other way the story can go. There’s just no other way the characters can act. The actions in Knipfel’s book are arbitrary, they aren’t dictated because that’s what the story demands. And ultimately, that’s where the author fails. Noogie doesn’t take the money because that’s what his character would do if he were to actually exist, Noogie takes the money because that’s what his character needs to do as a plot device.
Noogie’s Time To Shine isn’t a bad novel. It’s just not good. And when there’s so much out there that is good, why waste time on the not-so-good? – John Royal
Noogie’s Time To Shine, by Jim Knipfel, Virgin Books, 2007, 247 pages