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"Talent shines on every page of this feisty, bittersweet memoir."   -ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, Grade: A

The Cleveland Plain Dealer:   Sunday, June 18th, 2006

A potent look at journey into blindness

by Sarah Willis

Writer Edna O'Brien put it this way: "What writing does is al low us to sample each other's fate," and although she was discussing fiction, this idea of sampling another's fate is exactly what a good memoir does. From the safety of our own lives we can understand what it's like to be raised in the foster system, be clinically depressed or, as in "Cockeyed" by Ryan Knighton, to go blind. Knighton invites us into his blindness, and through his reflective and simply told story we literally see the world through his weakening eyes.

Knighton had an ordinary childhood in Langley, British Columbia, and even the first hints of failing vision seemed the ordinary problems any teenager might have: reading the wrong number, tripping over something left on the ground, missing a stop sign, driving over a rock - although Knighton drives over a whole row of boulders.

Finally he crashes the family car into a deep ditch, and his father becomes so angry that his mother makes an appointment for the eye doctor, just to appease her husband. Here the story veers from the familiar. On his 18th birthday, Knighton discovers that he has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative condition that will leave him blind.

"Cockeyed" tracks the passage from denial to acceptance. Knighton charts this course in a series of chapters with odd titles, such as "Bodysnatchers from the Planet of NASDAQ" and "The Pusan Roach." Each reads like a short story, a moment or a time seen alone, unconnected, small circles of stories that become whole only when you put them all together.

There's the story about nightclubs, where "bumping into people was acceptable, even expected." There's the story about teaching English to children in South Korea while trying to pass as sighted and the story about a trip to New Orleans, where two muggers apologize when they realize that he's blind.

In all, there's humor and sadness, sometimes both in the very same sentence. After the aborted mugging, "The two men patted me once on the shoulder as they left, as if we were buddies, or I was a pet." Knighton gives us the facts, then his interior response: "That night didn't sit well with me for the rest of our trip. Something had, in the end, been taken from me, something very small. A strange kind of dignity . . . how does one get justice for not having been mugged?"

In the middle of this memoir, Knighton's brother dies, a sad story that feels, at first, dropped in, as dropped in as death can be, unconnected to blindness. But a memoir is never about the thing, it's about the person, and the brother's death shapes the writer, too.

There are no pyrotechnics here, no unbelievable moments, no stories that feel stretched for the purpose of telling a better story. And there is no whining, no "why me." Sometimes Knighton wanders and a story can feel unimportant (he loses a shoe in a nightclub), but then he comes back to the bigger picture, showing the most ordinary thing now framed in his blindness.

Knighton was losing the last of his sight as he wrote "Cockeyed." He can see some color and wavy blurred shapes and has a little tunnel vision left. "If I look at the word 'dime' on this page, less than half the letter 'm' is clear to me . . . dragging the rake of my eye around . . . I collect holes of clarity."

Knighton sees the world in tiny circles. He writes his memoir in this way, too. The whole becomes a powerful read.

Willis, a novelist and teacher, lives in Cleveland Heights.

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