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Noogie’s Time To Shine by Jim Knipfel

Noogie’s Time to Shine: A True Crime Novel
by Jim Knipfel
Virgin Books, 256 pp.
CLR [rating:3.5]

A Lonely Fugitive

I came to this novel knowing nothing about the American writer Jim Knipfel. A quick Google search has since filled me on a few salient biographical details but while reading his second novel, I had the unusual pleasure of not having to worry about any pre-conceived ideas getting in the way of my response. (Odd that by writing this I might now ruin that for other people, but there you are.)

Noogie’s Time to Shine is the story of Ned ‘Noogie’ Krapczak, a New Jersey native whose life has failed to match up to his childhood dreams of being a movie director. Noogie is in his mid thirties and restocks ATM machines for a living. He travels to ‘convenience stores, bodegas, greengrocers, bars and large grocery stores,’ where his interactions with members of staff consist of his making weak jokes and then being mocked or ignored. ‘Most of them found him to be a kind of jackass blowhard…but Noogie himself felt different. He was slick and suave. He was the essence of cool, just like Steve McQ.’ Noogie’s home life is no refuge from his work. He lives at home with his mother, whose incessant sniping and put downs call Livia Soprano to mind. Mrs Krapczak doesn’t allow Noogie to smoke or drink in the house, fails to understand his interest in films, and isn’t slow to remind her progeny that he is fat and useless.

One day a young boy shouts ‘bang’ when Noogie is in the middle of restocking a machine in Fast Eddie’s Drug Hut. Noogie drops four thousand dollars in twenties all over the floor, screams at the kid and then gathers the notes up. It is only when he has loaded them all into the ATM that he finds a stray twenty under his shoe. It is then that the idea for the ‘perfect slow-motion heist’ occurs to him. Very soon he is siphoning off twenties here and there as he does his rounds. It is not long before he is filling laundry bags with hundreds of dollars a day. It is all so simple. ‘So long as the people could still withdraw whatever they wanted from the machines (up to and including their daily limit), and so long as those clowns in Florida were getting a cool dollar seventy-five every time they did, Noogie could pretty much snag would he wanted.’ Within a year, he manages to steal almost five million dollars, until the inept company he works for finally catch on. He takes to the road with his large cat – who, suitably enough, is called John Dillinger – but his initial excitement at being on the lam, turns into frustration when the radio fails to bring him news of roadblocks and a nationwide manhunt. Heading for Florida, which Noogie thinks will be a nice place to be despite the fact that his company’s headquarters are located there, he feels an overwhelming need to be conspicuous; he can’t accept the need for quiet and secrecy. He checks into motels as Thomas Crown and Virgil Hilts, leaves enormous tips for waitresses he takes a shine to, and, at one point, shouts ‘come and get me coppers’ out of the window of his Ford van. Noogie wants to be involved in high jinks, the plot to thicken, the action to speed up; above all, he longs to cut to the chase. As he moves from one casual encounter to the next, from diner to motel to tavern, his extraordinary loneliness becomes apparent. This is not only a man whose dreams have become nothing but a void inside him, but who has been denied real human contact, companionship and love.

Written in short, punchy, no nonsense sentences that drive you deep into Noogie’s cynicism, frustration and despair, Knipfel’s novel is impressive for the empathy the author shows for his characters. Apparently inspired by a real caper, Noogie’s Time To Shine is a great novel for those whose imaginative life is as dominated by the cinema as its protagonist’s. Knipfel reminds us how real cinema’s characters can become to us, and how film stars allow us access to a fantasy life which can become more meaningful than our own lives, which, by comparison, we like to deem dull, monotonous and routine. In the final third of the novel, when the road trip gives way to a police procedural, Knipfel loses his way a little; the various FBI agents and cops are not as well realised as Noogie and we have much less invested in them given their late appearance in the story. But the middle section, when Noogie is on the run, offers a poignant and often very funny portrait of a forlorn, dissatisfied man who, having failed to make movies with his life, makes his life a movie.

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