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

Vancouver Sun; Date: 2006 May 06; Section: Books; Page Number: F17

story that’s as true as can be

In the wake of the debacle surrounding James Frey and his fabricated memoir, Vancouver writer Ryan Knighton restores faith in the genre with his achingly honest Cockeyed: A Memoir, a raw, hilarious and touching account of one man’s journey into blindness.

He gets things rolling right from the title page, on which he makes clear his mission of truth: “This book is a work of memoir. All people, places, events, and neuroses are representations of the facts. That includes encounters with dead philosophers. Should a reader determine that the author is not disabled, please contact the appropriate authorities. He would gladly delete his blindness from any further memoirs.”

This book pulsates with honesty, and skeptics can easily check Knighton’s credibility, as he teaches at Capilano College.

Cockeyed opens with the genesis of the title, a cousin’s taunt about the young Ryan’s odd appearance, and moves swiftly to — hold your breath — Knighton’s early driving experiences. As a 14-year-old shipper/receiver, he ends up driving a forklift, in part because he makes so many mistakes reading invoice numbers. When he almost runs over a fellow worker, he concocts a tale of faulty sight, having no idea that on his 18th birthday he will be diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative and irreversible condition leading to total blindness.

“The story of my blindness began as a lie,” he notes. At 17, he gets a driver’s licence and points out, “I was going blind behind the wheel of my father’s 1982 Pontiac Acadian. Feel free to shudder. Other soon-to-be-blind people are on the road today enjoying a similar story, only they’ve still got some damage to do.”

Knighton emerges from his brief driving career with extraordinary luck: No one gets hurt. His father’s car is less lucky, but it’s the driving disasters that finally lead to his diagnosis.

Once he knows his future of further diminishing sight, he rebels. He’s a young man, after all, and even though his sight is compromised, his hormones aren’t.

Neither is his desire for independence and experience. He moves out of his parents’ home in Langley and heads to Simon Fraser University, where he rooms with a young woman who happens to be deaf. The message on their answering machine tells it all: “Hi, you’ve reached the answering machine for Ryan and Jane. We’re probably home right now, but Jane didn’t hear the phone again, and I can’t find it. Please leave a message. Or just come over and help.”

Knighton’s wit infuses both his life and this book with laugh-out-loud bits, but Cockeyed isn’t just an amusing look at blindness. It’s so much more.

Knighton tackles family relations, describing his parents and siblings with understanding and love. He deals with the death of a brother with such moving clarity that the poignancy of loss generates tears.

He describes “Gimp Camp,” where he and 31 other blind people attempt to have fun and, in Knighton’s case, to confront his fear “not of blindness, but of blind people.”

He reveals his romances, and the book is in part a luminous love song to his wife. He ponders contemporary culture, from punk music and mosh pits to shopping for a couch at Ikea. And he contemplates the connection between blindness, memory, writing and identity with boundless curiosity and vibrant wisdom.

The language of this book matches the vast landscape of its content. From raw profanities to seamlessly beautiful articulations of pain and love, Knighton controls his voice and simultaneously strips off and creates layers of his being. As he grows and changes, so does the book.

Cockeyed is a wonderful achievement, and Ryan Knighton is one of those writers to add to the must-read list.

But enough from me: Go buy this book and read it. And then read it again.

Candace Fertile teaches Canadian literature at Camosun College in Victoria.

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