Portland Tribune, Oregon.
Friday, May 26, 2006.
'Cockeyed' by Ryan Knighton.
Many people would fail to find the humor in going blind. But that's just what Ryan Knighton manages to do in his irreverent and moving memoir, "Cockeyed."
Knighton was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa on his 18th birthday. It is a degenerative condition that first attacks peripheral vision and then begins to eat away at central sight. By the time Knighton was diagnosed he'd had more than his fair share of nocturnal driving accidents, mainly because he'd never been tested for night vision.
As he notes early in his book, "When it came to reading the eye chart and identifying the road signs, my eyes did their duty. But put those same signs under a street lamp on a foggy September evening - now that's another phenomenon, and one I would have missed."
It's this combination of cheeky commentary and informative reporting that moves Knighton's book from the inspirational but insipid to interesting and compelling.
Knighton, now 33, did not go gently into blindness. For a time after his diagnosis he refused to wear or carry anything that would brand him as disabled. But several incidents, including one in a crowded punk club involving the loss of his own pants, brought him up short.
He writes, "I felt like a man whose midlife crisis had caught up, enlightening him to what a bad idea his new earring was, and how silly he looked wearing the same clothes as his son. . I had to wear my blindness from now on, whether I found it ill-fitting or not."
Knighton describes everything from learning to use a cane to getting lost in a crowded Korean train station to falling in love with his wife, Tracy. Each story has challenges and surprises not only for the young author but for the reader as well. When describing how it feels to urge his sight-impaired body across a dimly lit road, he invites his audience to mimic the feeling.
"In an empty parking lot . close your eyes and sprint a good distance. You'll experience just how unhappy the act makes your body feel. Even when your mind knows it's safe, the rest of you will drag and resist like a mighty skeptic."
Having lived as a sighted person, Knighton is a perfect commentator on how blind people often face patronization and humiliation in their day-to-day lives. Even enjoying a dinner out with his wife can prove a struggle, when staff assume that Tracy will be ordering for him and direct all of their questions to her alone. Yet even when addressing this type of incident, Knighton gives a literary shrug of his shoulders and exhibits admirable patience.
He's also adept at noting how even among themselves, the blind often fall back on behavior ill-suited for them. While attending a camp run by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, he noted how everyone used hand motions when giving directions.
"You'd think of all places in the world, this one would have been gesture-free. Nope. Everybody, me included, carried on flagging and pointing, and as you'd expect, none of us followed. We were so used to living with sighted people that we couldn't even be blind with one another."
Toward the end, there's a sense that Knighton, who lives in East Vancouver, British Columbia, ran out of steam. Two of the latter chapters read as if they were tacked on to the slim book. Overall, however, the memoir is entertaining and enlightening. The author's style is a bit Nick Hornby-esque, and that's a good thing. Not every writer can turn a sobering medical condition into something to giggle about.
End of article.
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