The Knockout Queen: A novel (Vintage Contemporaries) (Paperback)

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Staff Reviews

The Knockout Queen is an intimate, articulate, violent book about good and bad people and good and bad things and all of them just happening to each other all the time for no reason except that they can. Definitely an early contender for the book of 2020. Michael, the drollest teenaged narrator since forever, lives tenuously in an LA suburb with his scraping-by aunt after mom’s gone to jail for stabbing abusive, drunk dad. His only close relationships are the decades-older men he hooks up with on Craigslist and his neighbor Bunny, daughter of the town’s leading real estate shyster. She's an Olympic hopeful, but she's also a teenager trying to navigate high school, loyalty, and boys as a girl who’s 6-foot-3. So much of the novel is about examining morality – how do you judge a person’s moment at the edge, how do you put it into context? – but those questions are put into sharp relief when juxtaposed against the book’s numbing understanding (is this the new nihilism?) that no matter what they do, this generation is going to end up worse off than the one before them. Does it even matter if their futures are dashed? What’s left are a couple of kids clinging to each other to whom Thorpe gives the enviable, pitiable, beautiful, and ugly depth of real, living, breathing human beings. Are they moral? Who cares - they are ALIVE.

— Chris Lee

Michael is your average gay teenager, albeit one living with his aunt and cousin because his mom went to prison for stabbing her then-husband in self-defense. Because their neighborhood in North Shore (not the once-tourist destination in Riverside County but a fictional community adjacent to Manhattan Beach) is in teardown transition, they live next to the real estate agent and developer Ray Lambert and his daughter Bunny, a champion volleyball player somewhat stymied socially by her oversized presence – I was reminded of Alice in Wonderland nibbling on the Eat Me cake. Michael’s messing around with an older guy he met on Grindr and Bunny, well she’s also involved in a somewhat inappropriate relationship. But worse than that, Bunny’s response to a former friend trashing Michael leads to an oversized reaction. Michael alternates his own story and with being the Nick Carraway to Bunny’s. I was entranced by Michael’s compelling voice and found the story stayed with me afterwards as I plotted the ethical compasses of each of the characters. It’s a funny, moving, and sometimes shocking story. Insert your own knockout pun here.

— Daniel Goldin

At 11 years old, Michael is forced to move in with his aunt after his mother goes to prison. It’s there that he sees his next door neighbor, Bunny, for the first time, and he’s immediately fascinated. It’s not sexual attraction. Michael has known he’s gay since about the time he got there, and the two are so different in so many ways. But once they become friends it’s clear that neither one has ever felt so understood. For the first time, another person sees the fear and pain they’ve suffered. The Knockout Queen is a glaring look at the mess life can become, for kids and their families, for lovers and friends of all kinds. It’s an unblinking view of the fickle and sometimes inhuman realities that come from being human. Still, I loved it. Michael is the most riveting retrospective character I’ve met, as he looks back to a time when he was just beginning to see that love and people are deeply flawed and unexpectedly violent. The sincere way he throws out his stark, super-smart observations of everything, without hesitation, is endearing and magnetic. Best of all, he’s so damn funny! And he never accepts that what he sees is all that’s possible, giving him a resilience which easily carried me through to the end. Thorpe is a gifted writer, showing us with rare clarity how our complicated emotional world operates. She has a very special voice, and one that I want to hear again!

— Tim McCarthy

May 2020 Indie Next List

“To say I admire The Knockout Queen feels inadequate, though I do admire a great deal of it: its voice, depth, structure — you name it. But it’s more honest just to say I love The Knockout Queen; I loved reading it, I felt involved in it, and, finally, I was so moved by its ending. This is an epic tale of friendship, one where the magnitude sneaks up on you quietly — but when it strikes home, it rings so brilliantly true.”
— Will Walton, Books Are Magic, Brooklyn, NY


A Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
An InStyle Best Book of the Year
A Refinery29 Best Book of the Year

By the end of high school, Bunny Lampert is 6’3 with the abs of a ninja turtle and the face of a boy angel. Her dad has chaotic salesman energy and her mom is dead. But from the outside, Bunny seems to have it all⁠—she’s blonde, rich, and an Olympic volleyball hopeful. Michael⁠⁠—who has a ponytail and a septum piercing, works at Rite-Aid, and has a secret Grindr⁠—lives with his aunt in the cramped cottage next door to Bunny’s McMansion. When Bunny catches Michael smoking in her yard, he discovers that her life is not as perfect as it seems.

Their friendship is as improbable as it is irresistible, but when Michael falls in love for the first time, a vicious strain of gossip circulates and a terrible, brutal act becomes the defining feature of both his and Bunny’s futures⁠⁠. A beautiful and darkly comic book about doing things you didn’t mean to do, wanting things you wish you didn’t want, and loving people you can’t afford to love.

About the Author

Rufi Thorpe received her MFA from the University of Virginia in 2009. She is the author of Dear Fang, with Love and The Girls from Corona del Mar, which was long listed for the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize and for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. A native of California, she currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and sons.

Praise For…

A Kirkus Fiction Writer to Discover 

“[An] electric portrait of adolescence.”

“Full of verve and sketched in colors as vibrant as a Tilt-A-Whirl David Hockney landscape.”
—Los Angeles Times

“The story of [Bunny and Michael’s] intense, beautiful, life-wrecking friendship bursts with intelligence, humor and moral insight.”
“A tender, furious ode to the connections that somehow still endure, despite everything.”
Entertainment Weekly

The Knockout Queen is a must-read.”
“Ultimately, The Knockout Queen delivers its intended punch with a complex story of friendship, family, right and wrong, and the fragility of teenage angst. The eventual resolution of Michael and Bunny’s fates is also a searing reminder of how one action can change your trajectory, putting your life on a course different from the one you imagined for yourself.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“In Thorpe’s Technicolor world, everyone is an innocent and everyone is culpable and no one is absolved, and the result is a novel both nauseatingly brutal and radically kind. Brilliantly off-kilter and vibrating with life.”
Kirkus (starred)
“Thorpe comes back swinging with her best novel yet. . . . The Knockout Queen is a moody and mordantly funny contemplation of the rigors of growing up that will leave readers reeling.”
BookPage (starred)
“Thorpe always has a way into a character that makes them known to you, of bringing small details, humor, and observation to light, that you find yourself remembering the person as if they were in your own life. . . . It allows a level of intimacy, of knowing, of actually falling in love with the flawed people who inhabit the pages. Thorpe’s gift and well-honed talent is clear, palpable, and, for me, undeniable. . . . She has reached a rare status of authors for me: I will read anything she writes.”
Martin McClellan, Seattle Review of Books
“Darkly comic and fiercely intelligent.”
Poets and Writers
“One of the most piercing, accurate portrayals of what it means to be a teenager, and figuring out who you are in the world that I've ever come across. . . . Thorpe's ability to capture the ways in which we manifest psychic pain in physical ways is uncanny, and the end result is a coming-of-age novel that is unsettling and resonant in all the most important ways.”
—Kristen Iversen, Refinery 29
“[Thorpe] writes with savage poignancy as she explores identity, adolescent friendship, and the insatiable longing for intimacy. Her novel is devastatingly honest, her characters vulnerable, and her readers will be spellbound.”
“Fierce. . . . Deeply realized and complex.”
Publishers Weekly
Product Details
ISBN: 9780525567295
ISBN-10: 0525567291
Publisher: Vintage
Publication Date: March 2nd, 2021
Pages: 288
Language: English
Series: Vintage Contemporaries