Imagine all the rarely visited rooms in California. The pool house extra bedrooms, the 14-chaired dining rooms. In her quietly provocative essay “Many Mansions,” Joan Didion describes the 12,000-square-foot Sacramento governor’s mansion Ronald Reagan erected in 1974 for $1.4 million but never lived in. “All day at this empty house three maintenance men try to keep the bulletproof windows clean and the cobwebs swept and the wild grass green and the rattlesnakes down by the river.” It was a folly of epic proportions, a harbinger of the California wealth explosion. Didion didn’t know it at the time, but no governor would ever live there — which makes her insight all the more prescient. “It is the kind of house in which one does not live,” she writes, “but there is no way to say this without getting into touchy and evanescent and finally inadmissible questions of taste, and ultimately of class.”
In “The Knockout Queen,” set in the fictional town of North Shore (a bizarro version of El Segundo), Michael peers over the fence from his aunt’s tiny stucco cottage into the backyard that sprawls out from Bunny Lampert’s “hushed cathedral” and thinks of the neighborhood: “Poor house, mansion, poor house, mansion, made a chessboard pattern along the street.” That’s the sort of town North Shore is, where the rich and the struggling know each other too well, and where mansions sit virtually empty while neighboring families cram together in shared bedrooms and dark, narrow kitchens.
“The Knockout Queen” — full of verve and sketched in colors as vibrant as a Tilt-A-Whirl David Hockney landscape — is Rufi Thorpe’s third novel (all are set, to some degree, in California); it is, first and foremost, a chronicle of unlikely teenage friendship upended by class struggle and abrupt violence. In that way it has shades of Julie Buntin’s “Marlena” and Claire Messud’s “The Burning Girl,” two exceptional recent novels that asked how childhood exposure to inequality rings in our ears well into adulthood. (There are also decidedly strong whiffs of “The Great Gatsby,” though sadly no multicolored shirts flung into the air.) But Thorpe inverts the more common tale of an impoverished sufferer who is momentarily saved or mourned by a richer, more stable friend. The result is revelatory.
What Michael sees over that fence, beyond the untouched pool, is Bunny, in her sophomore year taller than every boy in class and headed toward 6 feet 3. Michael calls her “the princess of North Shore,” though that crown rests crookedly on her unwilling head. Bunny lives with her father, Ray, the developer king of their town, whose visage grins out from billboards — “bleached teeth … rehearsed smile” — but with “chest hair that belonged to an animal.” In person Ray is fatter, with dark, puffy bags under his eyes. As Michael explains, “To live in North Shore was to be committed to pretense.” Ray drinks, to increasing degrees, while Bunny diligently pounds away at volleyball, her ticket (she hopes) through college and maybe to the Olympics. Ray becomes an unlikely third partner in their friendship, a tripod leg that can’t hold up its share of the weight.
I worried about Michael, who narrates this story from a future adult life. Closeted, he’s hopeful that he can get by as “just weird,” rather than outed and ostracized. With both parents out of the picture, he’s been taken in by his aunt, who teaches him to use eyeliner but never openly addresses his sexuality.
Thorpe, however, dives directly into it, spending a good portion of the novel following Michael through May-December sexcapades. Can a 30-something white female author really nail the intricacies of a 16-year-old queer teen? Are Michael’s frequent, uncomfortable Craigslist meet-ups — with “20yo Shy Boi” or Ed, a Chinese man who works in finance — exaggerations, subversions or realistic renderings? This 30-something white female critic can’t decide, though I know charismatic, empathetic writing when I see it.
What undoubtedly works here is Thorpe’s portrait of teenage ostracism. Michael and Bunny grow into best friends, interwoven as tightly as summer-camp string bracelets, though he imagines her life as more blessed than we know it is. When a brutal, violent act is committed (forgive the passive voice, but this is a detail I dare not reveal), tiny cracks spider-web across the fragile friendship they’ve built. It may just end up like that governor’s mansion — vigorously maintained, depressingly empty.
Thorpe writes convincingly about the intricacies of teenage hierarchy and the endless varieties of torture that the young can inflict on one other. She illustrates the performativity of status cleverly — as when Michael and Bunny spend hours dancing around to “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” wondering what it means when you need to cover up to reveal your true self. And the author lines up a series of violent acts — Michael’s mother jailed after stabbing his father in self-defense; a neighborhood woman killed in a domestic incident; and finally the novel’s pivotal attack — as an education, for Michael, about who suffers consequences and who can easily rinse the blood off their hands.
“The most difficult thing about being a person,” Michael discovers, is that “the people I had the most sympathy for were almost never the ones everyone else felt sympathy for.” Really, it all comes down to who has the most cash on hand, the most lavish front garden to obscure one’s deeds.
Can you write about California without writing about artifice? Thorpe pins down her characters by explaining what they yearned to show, not what they actually are. One teenage girl, Ann Marie, is “incessantly eating a sucker or popsicle in hopes of being seen as sexual.” Ray Lampert’s billboards offer up a whitened, brightened version of a man in a downward spiral. And North Shore itself turns out to consist of long rows of carefully pruned front hedges, with all the filth hidden well out of sight.
Didion has, of course, pointed this out. “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension.” That sounds like North Shore all right.
Kelly’s work has been published in New York magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.
The Knockout Queen
Knopf: 288 pages, $26.95