The Knockout Queen: A novel (Hardcover)

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The Knockout Queen: A novel By Rufi Thorpe Cover Image
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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



"Full of verve... Revelatory." —Los Angeles Times

A dazzling and darkly comic novel of love, violence, and friendship in the California suburbs

Bunny Lampert is the princess of North Shore⁠—beautiful, tall, blond, with a rich real-estate-developer father and a swimming pool in her backyard. Michael⁠⁠—with a ponytail down his back and a septum piercing⁠—lives with his aunt in the cramped stucco cottage next door. When Bunny catches Michael smoking in her yard, he discovers that her life is not as perfect as it seems. At six foot three, Bunny towers over their classmates. Even as she dreams of standing out and competing in the Olympics, she is desperate to fit in, to seem normal, and to get a boyfriend, all while hiding her father's escalating alcoholism. Michael has secrets of his own. At home and at school Michael pretends to be straight, but at night he tries to understand himself by meeting men online for anonymous encounters that both thrill and scare him. 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—and of their friendship. With storytelling as intoxicating as it is intelligent, Rufi Thorpe has created a tragic and unflinching portrait of identity, a fascinating examination of our struggles to exist in our bodies, and an excruciatingly beautiful story of two humans aching for connection.

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…

Longlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

An InStyle Best Book of 2020

A Kirkus Fiction Writer to Discover in 2020

An Entertainment Weekly, Parade, and LitHub Most Anticipated Book of 2020

"[An] electric portrait of adolescence."


"The Knockout Queen [is] full of verve and sketched in colors as vibrant as a Tilt-A-Whirl David Hockney landscape... 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."

—Hillary Kelly, Los Angeles Times

"Rufi Thorpe unfurls a coming of-age tale that feels both fresh and familiar: a shrewd exploration of all the ways people find to pass on the hurt and anger they’ve been given and a tender, furious ode to the connections that somehow still endure, despite everything. A-"

Entertainment Weekly

"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

"This is my favorite book of the year so far.”

Book of the Month Club, Siobhan Jones

"Thorpe’s story immediately enfolds the reader, moving them swiftly forward, swept up in the current. Nothing in this story is as black and white as we may be led to believe life is, or should be. Thorpe explores the humanity of each and every character on the page. 9/10"

Nerd Daily

"Thorpe comes back swinging with her best novel yet... From the very start, the story is infused with an unsettling sense of menace, which Thorpe skillfully wields to pierce through the veneer of her shiny California setting to honestly examine weighty topics such as friendship, sexuality, identity and belonging... With charismatic characters and a surprising and devastating storyline, The Knockout Queen is a moody and mordantly funny contemplation of the rigors of growing up that will leave readers reeling."

BookPage, starred

"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.”


"Thorpe’s fierce third novel observes the development of and challenges to an intense friendship between two outcasts at a Southern California high school… Deeply realized and complex. The result cannily dissects the power and limits of adolescent friendship.”

Publishers Weekly

"Thorpe takes a familiar plotline—a pair of teen misfits form an unlikely but life-altering friendship—and turns it into an arrestingly original, darkly comic meditation on moral ambiguity.... There are no victims here and no heroes, either. 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

"A knockout of a novel... beautiful, sad, hopeful, and fully engaging."

El Segundo Scene

“I loved The Knockout Queen. A blistering, brilliant look at friendship and violence, suburbia and class, all told by one of the most observant, engaging narrators I’ve read in a very long time. This book is going to stay with me.”

—Grant Ginder, author of Honestly, We Meant Well and The People We Hate at the Wedding 

“Rufi Thorpe writes with a savage, clear-eyed calm that is frighteningly good. The Knockout Queen unsettled me in the most delicious way with its complex and satisfying relationships and meditation on violence, beauty, and privilege. Read it!!”
—Jade Chang, author of The Wangs vs. the World

“Is it cheesy to say The Knockout Queen knocked me off my feet? I couldn’t put it down, and when I had to, I did so only reluctantly, shakily. With unrelenting humor and terrifying intelligence, Rufi Thorpe tells the story of an unlikely high school friendship—the kind of friendship from which you never recover—with intensity and attentiveness. This captivating, generous book is a moving examination on human motivation, darkness, and love—calling attention to the ways we can be deeply different, and yet so much the same.”

—Rachel Khong, author of Goodbye, Vitamin

"Fearless, tender, and savagely alive, The Knockout Queen is unlike anything you'll read this year. Rufi Thorpe's third novel is about unruly thoughts and unruly bodies, about violence and love, about doing the wrong thing for the right reasons and the drag of human being. You won't be able to look away. You might even recognize yourself.”

—Chloe Benjamin, best-selling author of The Immortalists

The Knockout Queen is an intense, unflinching examination of friendship, the threads that connect us in such strange ways. Rufi Thorpe navigates this difficult terrain thanks to a masterful use of detail and a wonderfully dark sense of humor that lands at just the right moment. Michael and Bunny are two of the most unique characters I've ever met, drawn with such precision that it's impossible to leave them behind. This is a hypnotic, beautiful novel, and Rufi Thorpe is an unbelievably unique talent.”

—Kevin Wilson, best-selling author of Nothing to See Here

The Knockout Queen is the best book I've read in months! Its one-of-a-kind narrator is funny, vulnerable, brilliant, and brimming with longing, and the story he tells distills the pain and beauty of a life-changing friendship like nothing else I've read before. This book's got guts and heart, and wisdom for days, and I could not put it down. Rufi Thorpe is one of the most exciting novelists working today. This novel is truly exceptional. I loved it.”

—Edan Lepucki, best-selling author of California and Woman No. 17
"Brilliantly constructed and beautifully told, threaded with heartbreak, honesty and hope, The Knockout Queen is a sublime coming of age story and Rufi Thorpe is a national treasure."
—Cynthia Sweeney, best-selling author of The Nest

Product Details
ISBN: 9780525656784
ISBN-10: 0525656782
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: April 28th, 2020
Pages: 288
Language: English