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An examination of human lives told in twist on a Kafka classic

Tyler Knox has reversed the premise of the 1915 Franz Kafka classic. In Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," a man awoke to discover he had been inexplicably transformed into a giant insect. In "Kockroach," a cockroach awakens to find himself transformed into a hideous thing -- a soft-bodied, pink-fleshed full-grown man in a rundown motel room off 42nd Street in New York.

Figuring he is experiencing a strange new molt, Kockroach studies his new body and moves about the room, finding a family photograph of this man whose body he now inhabits. He finds the man's clothes and -- after studiously examining the photo -- figures out how to dress himself, then sets off into the human world with an arthropod's guiding instinct: do not attract attention and avoid getting squashed.

As it turns out, a cockroach is perfectly suited to thrive in Times Square in the mid-1950s. Kockroach uses his natural survival skills to mimic snippets of conversation he overhears. He hides in the shadows and watches how these humans move on two legs, how they greet one another, how they interact. How they feed and how they mate.

Kockroach befriends a two-bit Times Square hustler nicknamed Mite who takes Kockroach's peculiar gait and mannerisms for a jazz hipster's mentality. When Kockroach instinctively protects Mite from getting roughed up by a drug dealer by easily snapping the dealer's arm -- a cockroach's standard defense strategy -- Mite realizes this mysterious hipster he has christened Jerry Blatta can be a tremendous asset for a pint-sized hustler on the mean streets of New York.

Knox tells Kockroach's story through three narratives -- a first-person account of Blatta's incredible rise through the underworld and into legitimate business, told by Mite; a third-person account from Kockroach's perspective, including how he hides the nature of what he is from everyone around him; and a brief, third-person account from the perspective of Celia Singer, the woman who becomes part of a love triangle between Kockroach and Mite.

Unlike Kafka's protagonist in "The Metamorphosis," Kockroach doesn't dwell on his unexplainable transformation. As Knox explains, cockroaches live purely in the present tense. They understand only two emotions, hunger and fear. When faced with a new and threatening stimulus, they react, or they get killed. Kockroach learns how to think about the future through learning to play chess, where future moves and opportunities open up in front of him, as long as he is paying attention.

Kockroach is equal parts hero and anti-hero because he has no conscience. He is purely driven by his instinct to survive, and he wavers between being the protagonist and the antagonist throughout Knox's superbly crafted fantasy. After he has risen through the ranks of a Greek crime family, first as an enforcer and then as a mob boss, Kockroach promises Mite -- who is becoming close with a police lieutenant and on the verge of betraying Kockroach -- the loyalty of a brother.

"I never had no brother," Mite says.

"I've had hundreds, thousands," Kockroach replies.

"I won't even ask. I won't even frigging ask, you freak. But since you've had so many you needs (sic) to clue me in. What does that loyalty-of-a-brother crap mean.?"

"It means, Mite, I won't eat you unless I have to."

"Kockroach" is an indictment of human behavior. It is a portrait of a world where the only way to survive is to behave without scruples -- to kill when necessary, to betray a comrade when necessary, to eat your own when necessary. It gives you respect for the lowly cockroach, the bottom-feeder that survives long after everything else is destroyed.

Kockroach lives a life without pride, vanity, emotional attachments or financial concerns. Anything he wants, he simply takes. It is the cockroach way, and in a sense, it's as admirable as the ambition one can find in any successful businessman, entertainer or entrepreneur. It's also deeply disturbing because this feces-devouring, insect-turned-man can so easily pass for one of our own -- not just a human being, but a man of distinction, a judge, a CEO, a Congressman.

Even more frightening is the allure that Kockroach gives off. Guided by a gluttonous sense of greed, he amasses power and wealth, and with that come the women who love him, the lawyers who scamper towards him like cockroaches to feed off the scraps of money he throws around, the wannabes, the hangers-on and the gold-diggers. The only thing stopping a cockroach from taking over the world is the size and shape of its body.

"Kockroach" is a superb and engrossing story, a street-wise fantasy colored in shades of gray where "good" and "bad" are concepts as meaningless as the sales pitches from the tired-looking prostitutes, and where a parasite can feed to its heart's content on the core of the Big Apple itself.

Dan Murphy is a local freelance writer.

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Kockroach

By Tyler Knox

William Morrow, 368 pages, $23.95

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