The title Bob Pfeifer’s subversive new crime thriller is rife with double-meaning. University of Strangers might well refer to the Italian school (literal transtlation: “University of Foreigners”) where Amanda Knox studied language before her arrest in connection with the murder of flat-mate Meredith Kercher.
But the title also connotes an underground enclave of celebrity truth-seekers summonsed by a Latino author’s deathbed letter. Roberto Bolano wants them to ply their artistic acumen and elite status to “detect the BS” being shoveled by the Perugian government and media. Albert Camus recognized that a foreigner is, in essence, a stranger—and just as Knox was tourist at another nation’s college, so are the upper echelon of the world’s entertainment industry detached from their fellowmen. These days it’s hard to separate fact from gossip, or distinguish elected officials from TMZ correspondents. Their compost smells the same. Their words are similarly vacuous despite their elocution.
Are you smarter than a fourth grader? Who is President of Venezuela—Lorenzo Lamas, Hugo Chavez, or Perez Hilton?
Luminaries of music, film, and journalism alternately discuss membership in Bolano’s Secret Society of Strangers and—per his “Fight Club” rules—deny its existence outright. Icons like Iggy Pop, Oliver Stone, Elvis Costello, and Sean Penn engage in surreptitious conversations in photo booths and hold clandestine meetings in hotels. Some Tinseltown titans lament they never received one of Bolano’s photocopied invites (they weren’t “cool” enough); others pretend they never got one—or feign complete ignorance of both the letter and the organization. It’s Pfeifer’s way of questioning the cults of personality surrounding actors and politicos alike. He’s not so much asking who is considered famous as he is eager to determine why. To that end, his novel becomes the surgical instrument of social critique with which he dissects “hipness,” thereby reducing Hollywood’s well-worshipped Fonzies to decidedly un-cool Barney Fifes.
The paparazzi are unwittingly employed to survey—to record, document, and publish—even the most seemingly insignificant affairs transpiring in this Orwellian arboretum we call modern civilization. Because when your objective is Truth, only videotape trumps DNA evidence.
Such proof becomes tantamount later on.
The ranks are drawn into the Knox saga when one of their own is falsely accused of rape. Branko—whose inclusion in the Strangers derives from his tenure as frontman of Cleveland punk band Whatchacallit—insists he didn’t attack his ex-girlfriend. But the Italian investigators and prosecutors don’t care. Someone must be crucified.
The Strangers hypothesize that Branko and his friend Juan were railroaded by the bureaucracy in Perugia to draw media attention away from the ongoing Knox appeals. Everyone seems to have a personal stake in Amanda’s conviction and / or acquittal, particularly in Italy—where the Carabiniera military police work at the behest of prosecutors rather than conduct their own objective fact-based investigations.
“Look, I’m going back to Spain,” says Woody Allen of the unfolding drama. “There could be gangsters. Mafia, right? We should get to the bottom of this, absolutely, but I don’t know if I’m the man for the job. I’m not a physical guy.”
Thus begins the sordid tale of Branko’s imprisonment and quest for justice—for both himself and Knox. Pfeifer—himself an ex-punker (Human Switchboard) and Sony Music mogul—constructs his satiric thriller with offhand comments, journal entries, and newspaper outtakes from a dizzying ensemble of politicians, prisoners, trendsetters, and traitors. An intrepid young newshound (The American Reporter) and seasoned fiction writer (The Anonymous Novelist) team up, testing puzzle pieces via cellphones and email communiqués even as crooked lawyers and self-serving officials conspire against them.
Knox’s real-life codefendants Hermann Guede and Raffaele Sollecito offer their opinions, but Pfeifer shies away from fictionalizing the Seattle student’s own account of the grisly scene in Kercher’s apartment on the night of November 1, 2007. Nonetheless, the author deftly skewers the media’s fascination with “Foxy Knoxy.” Pfeifer seems to suggest (if between the lines) it is precisely because of the sensational coverage of lurid stories like the Kercher killing that people—Strangers or not—are distracted from ultimate Truth. Gonzo journalism, political backstabbing, and talk show bickering have fostered a global tabloid mindset. We’ve taken our eyes off the ball, philosophically speaking.
Seeking to expose the Strangers by convicting Blanko (thereby indicting Knox), a prosecutor enlists moles to gather a DNA from the accused by raping him in jail. But the rascals underestimate Blanko’s influence beyond the prison walls. It never occurs to them they’re under as much surveillance as anyone in our Brave New World.
Paranoia is a thread not so loosely sewn between Pfeifer’s fictitious newspaper excerpts and interview extracts. Everyone is suspicious because everyone has an agenda—meaning they’ve got something to lose. Those who dare hunting the guilty risk a bullet in the back, courtesy the Russian mafia. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
But when Truth itself is in the crosshairs, even an anonymous champion will suffice. Ironic then, that the world’s most familiar names and faces comprise the Strangers’ roster—and that they are charged with undoing the very voyeurism that saw them perched on their pedestals.
The book includes a drop-card code allowing readers to download samples of Pfeifer’s work with his new rock project, the Tabby Chinos.
Pfeifer himself will appear at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 11, 2011 as part of the “Cleveland Confidential” book tour, which also features fellow musician-authors Mike Hudson (The Pagans), Cheetah Chrome (Dead Boys), and David Thomas (Pere Ubu). Published by Power City Press in conjunction with Smog Veil Records, University of Strangers is available now at www.smogveil.com and Amazon.