The Washington Post
Kockroach (P.S. Series)by Tyler Knox
It is the mid-1950s, and Kockroach, perfectly content with his life infesting a fleabag hotel off Times Square, awakens to discover that somehow he's been transformed into, of all things, a human. A tragic turn of events, yes, but cockroaches are awesome coping machines, so Kockroach copes. Step by step, he learns the ways of man—how to walk, how to talk, and
It is the mid-1950s, and Kockroach, perfectly content with his life infesting a fleabag hotel off Times Square, awakens to discover that somehow he's been transformed into, of all things, a human. A tragic turn of events, yes, but cockroaches are awesome coping machines, so Kockroach copes. Step by step, he learns the ways of man—how to walk, how to talk, and how to wear a jaunty brown fedora. Led by his primitive desires and insectile amorality, he navigates through the bizarre human realms of crime, business, politics, and sex. Will he find success or be squashed flat from above? Will he change humanity, or will humanity change him?
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By Tyler Knox
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Tyler Knox
All right reserved.
As Kockroach, an arthropod of the genus Blatella and of the species germanica, awakens one morning from a typically dreamless sleep, he finds himself transformed into some large, vile creature.
He is lying flip side up atop a sagging pad. Four awkwardly articulated legs sprawl on either side of his extended thorax. His abdomen, which once made up the bulk of his body, lies like a flaccid worm between his legs. In the thin light his new body looks ridiculously narrow and soft, its skin beneath a pelt of hair as pale and shriveled as a molting nymph's.
Maybe that is what has happened, maybe he has simply molted. He reflexively swallows air, expecting his abdomen to expand into its normal proud dimensions and the air to swell his body until the skin stretches taut so it can begin hardening to a comforting chocolate brown, but nothing happens. No matter how much air he swallows, his body remains this pale pathetic thing.
A flash of red rips through the crusts of Kockroach's eyes before disappearing, and suddenly, in the frenzied grip of positive thigmotaxis, he wriggles his legs wildly until he tumbles onto the floor. With his legs beneath him now, he scurries under the wooden frame supporting the pad, squirming back and forth, ignoring the pain in his joints, until he has found a comforting pressure on his chest, his back, his side.
Better, muchbetter. The red light snap-crackles on, hissing and glowing throughout the room, slinking beneath the wooden frame before disappearing just as suddenly. It snap-crackles on and disappears again, on-off, on-off. His fear of the light subsides as the pattern emerges, when something else draws his attention.
A rhythmic rush of air, in and out, an ebb and flow coming from somewhere nearby. He turns his head, trying to find the sound's source before he realizes that a peculiar undulation in his chest matches the rhythm of the rushing air.
Cockroaches don't breathe, per se. Instead, air flows passively into openings called spiracles and slides gently through tracheae that encircle their bodies. There is the occasional squeezing of air from the tracheae, yes, but nothing like this relentless pumping of air in and out, in and out. It is terrifying and deafening and unremitting. It is so loud it must be drawing predators. Kockroach spreads his antennae to check his surroundings and senses nothing. He reaches up a claw to clean the receptors and gasps upon finding no antennae there. The sound arising from his throat is shockingly loud, a great anguished squeal that frightens him into silence.
His shock wanes as quickly as it waxed. He doesn't wonder at how this grossly tragic transformation has happened to him. He doesn't fret about the blinking light or gasping breath, about his pale shriveled skin or missing antennae. Cockroaches don't dwell in the past. Firmly entrenched in the present tense, they are awesome coping machines. When his right leg was pulled off by a playful mouse, he hadn't rolled over and whined, he had scampered away and learned to limp on five legs until he grew a new limb with his next molt. Deal with it, that is the cockroach way. When food is scarce, cockroaches don't complain, first they eat their dead, then they eat their young, then they eat each other.
Kockroach blinks his eyes at the growing brightness in the room. He is tired already. He is used to two bouts of feverish activity in the middle of the night and then a long sleep during the day. The dawn light signals him it is time to retire. Pressed against the edge of the wall, his aching limbs jerk beneath him, his back rises to touch the slats of the wooden frame, and he falls asleep.
When Kockroach awakens again it is dark except for the rhythmic pulse of the hissing red light. He is still wedged beneath the wooden frame. His four legs now ache considerably and a line of pain runs through his back.
From beneath the frame he can just make out the contours of the room, its walls and baseboards veined by inviting little cracks. There is a wooden object in the middle of the room, and beside it, floating above the floor, is a piece of meat, the top of which is obscured by the top of the frame.
Kockroach crawls quickly out from under the wooden frame, stops, crawls quickly again, dashes beneath the meat, heads for a lovely little crack he espied from afar. He dives into it and bangs his head on the wall.
He had forgotten for a moment what had happened to him. Slowly he brings his face down to the crack that seems now so small. In the recess he sees two antennae floating gracefully back and forth. He reaches to the crack, tries to place his claw in the crevice to touch his fellow arthropod. His digits splay, the claw screams in pain. He articulates the digits, five of them, one by one before his face. What a grotesquely useless configuration. He reaches out one digit and guides it to the crack. Only the slightest bit of soft flesh slips in.
Suddenly, he is overwhelmed by a thousand different sensations that seem strangely more real than his bizarre altered presence in that room. The patter of hundreds of feet, the crush of bodies, the blissful stink of the colony. The feel of his antennae rubbing against the antennae of another, pheromones bringing everything to a fever pitch, being mounted from behind, his hooks grabbing hold. The taste of sugar, starch, the desperate run across a patch of open light. He is slipping back through his life. The shedding of old chitin, the taste of it afterward, the delicious feel of his mother's chest upon his back when he was still the smallest nymph. He slides his digit back and forth along the crack in the wall and falls into a pool of remembrance and emotion, both stunning and unexpected.
But sentimental nostalgia is not a cockroach trait, neither is regret, nor deep unsatisfied longing. He had never felt such sensations before and he fights against their unfathomable power with all his strength. Insectile resolve battles mammalian sentimentality for supremacy over this new body until, with a great shout, Kockroach triumphantly climbs out of the strange emotional swirl and falls back into himself.
He won't let this strange molt ruin him. He will stay true to the purity of the instincts that have guided him safely through the earlier stages of his life. Whatever has happened, whatever will happen in the future, he will forever remain a cockroach.
He traces his digit up the wall, as if the tip itself is an arthropod making its way to the safety of the ceiling. Halfway to the top his claw alights on a dull white plate with a black switch. Cockroaches instinctively try every crevice, search every nook, climb every tilting pile of dishes. It is in their nature to explore. He flicks the switch.
Light floods the room. Panic. He would flee, but to where? He follows his second instinct to hide against a wall and freeze. He spins and presses himself into the corner and moves not a muscle.
He listens for the sound of a predator and hears nothing.
He presses his head so hard into the corner the vertex of his face throbs.
With a start, he realizes he is standing and the ache he had been feeling in his legs, the pain in his back, are all slowly receding. This is a body that works best vertically. He will adapt, he is a cockroach.
Balancing precariously on two pale slabs of flesh at the bottom of his lower legs, he takes tiny steps as he turns around, his upper legs moving contrapuntally with his lower legs out of long-ingrained habit. And as he turns he examines the now-lit space in which he finds himself. It is in actuality a small pathetic hotel room, green walls that can barely contain a bed and a bureau and a tiny desk, a single window through which the hissing red neon of the hotel's sign can be spied; it is a sad cramped piece of real estate but to Kockroach it is a palace. And in the center, hanging from the source of light, is the piece of meat.
Kockroach is frightened when he sees it there, shaped as it is like a predator, but it is just hanging, not moving, hanging. He determines it is not a threat and his fear subsides.
Still in the corner, he reaches out his upper appendage, an arm now that he is standing vertically, and with his claw flicks down the black switch on the white plate. Darkness.
He flicks it up. Light.
He flicks it down. Darkness.
So that is how they do it.
Up and down, up and down. After an hour of that he leaves the light on and practices walking.
Excerpted from Kockroach by Tyler Knox Copyright © 2007 by Tyler Knox. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Tyler Knox holds a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. A former resident of New York City, Chicago, Iowa City, and Washington, D.C., he now lives on the East Coast with his wife and their dog.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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hilarious and insightful. so worth the read.
This is a good book but about 10 years ago there was a book for kids called Shoebag about a cockroach who turns into a little boy. Kafka's Metamorphosis is mentioned as well as Kafka's hero Gregor Samsa. It's still in print. Scholastic. Author Mary James. There is also a sequel called Shoebag Returns.
The cockroach wakes up in a 1950s Times Square roach hotel to find somehow he no longer is a bug, but instead has become a male human. Though he is unhappy to devolve into a man, Kockroach is not concerned as his species understands survival of the fittest having been around since the dinosaur age and still thriving in the cement jungles in spite of weapons of mass destruction better known as human shoes.-------------- Kockroach takes the name of Jerry Blatta as he meets street punk Mickey 'Mite' Pimelia, who sees the transformed bug as a way to make a fortune in the world of gangs. However, Jerry notices that Mighty Mite is soft on crippled telephone operator Celia so he keeps that handy in case he needs to use this info. Celia finds the roach morality of survival is everything quite enticing. Meanwhile king Kockroach begins to climb his way to the top of the gangs as he understands inducing fear.------------- Tyler Knox cleverly satirizes Kafka's Metamorphosis and 1950s Noirs with this delightfully dark saga. The antihero sees the world through cockroach glasses as he realizes that humans run on fight (over possessions) or flight (out of fear). Thus combining 'moral' bug instincts with insightful clarity of the dreaded shoe stomping society he has joined, Blatta provides quite a vivid picture of the human condition, always one step away from the graveyard. Readers will appreciate this powerful gloomy parable.--------------- Harriet Klausner