Michael, gay and closeted, has lived in a shabby house with his aunt and cousin since he was 11, when his mother was sent to prison for nonfatally stabbing his father. Bunny, a 6' 3" volleyball star, lives in the mansion next door. The Knockout Queen observes the development of and challenges to an intense friendship between these two outcasts at a Southern California high school in the early 2010s.
Through Michael’s clear-eyed gaze, Rufi Thorpe unfurls a coming-of-age tale that feels both fresh and familiar: a shrewd exploration of all the ways people find to pass on the hurt and anger they’ve been given and a tender, furious ode to the connections that somehow still endure, despite everything.
... full of verve and sketched in colors as vibrant as a Tilt-A-Whirl David Hockney landscape ... Thorpe inverts the more common tale of an impoverished sufferer who is momentarily saved or mourned by a richer, more stable friend. The result is revelatory ... Can a 30-something white female author really nail the intricacies of a 16-year-old queer teen?...This 30-something white female critic can’t decide, though I know charismatic, empathetic writing when I see it. What undoubtedly works here is Thorpe’s portrait of teenage ostracism ... Thorpe writes convincingly about the intricacies of teenage hierarchy and the endless varieties of torture that the young can inflict on one other. She illustrates the performativity of status cleverly.
Thorpe comes back swinging with her best novel yet ... From the very start, the story is infused with an unsettling sense of menace, which Thorpe skillfully wields to pierce through the veneer of her shiny California setting to honestly examine weighty topics such as friendship, sexuality, identity and belonging. Michael tends to see things in black and white, but the canvas of Thorpe’s novel is textured with shades of gray, its world morally ambiguous ... With charismatic characters and a surprising and devastating storyline, The Knockout Queen is a moody and mordantly funny contemplation of the rigors of growing up that will leave readers reeling.