Cover of Knockout Games by Greg Neri. An African American boy with his face obscured by a hoodie holds out two fists. The O in Knock is an eye..

About the Book

Title: Knockout Games
Published: 2014

Cover Story: Look Inside!
Drinking Buddy:
Testosterone Level:
Talky Talk:
White Privilege
Bonus Factors:
I Really Mean It, Baby…
Bromance Status:
See Ya in Five to Ten

Cover Story: Look Inside!

The creepy guy in the hoodie is okay, but there are some awesome photographs in the inner cover. Unfortunately, my library copy has tags and identification labels all over it, so I can’t really scan it for you.

The Deal:

Fifteen-year-old Erica’s life is pretty crummy. Her father has taken up with another woman and left the family with nothing but gambling debts. Her mother moves them to a nasty St. Louis neighborhood, where chubby Erica, with her bright red hair and white skin, really stands out. She has no friends and her mother is always at work.

Erica eventually befriends an African-American girl named Destiny, who introduces her to Kalvin Barnes, the Knockout King. Kalvin, along with a crew of middle schoolers, plays the knockout game. You find a random target, then punch them so hard that they fall unconscious. Simple as that.

The first time Erica comes to the games, she isn’t sure what to expect. But she manages to catch the whole attack with her camera. Anxious to be liked, she edits the video and shares it with Kalvin and his friends. They are impressed. They want her to be their official videographer.

Hey, now she has friends! She’s popular! And since she’s the one behind the camera, no one will know she’s involved. And it’s not like she’ll ever want to knock someone out herself…

Drinking Buddy: No

Two pints of beer cheersing with a "Denied" stamp over them

No. A thousand times no. The whole time Erica is involved in the knockout games, she never once wonders if this is, you know, kind of wrong. Even when she takes to knocking out people on her own. I mean, we’ve all done stupid stuff to fit in, but leaving a middle aged guy face down on the sidewalk, bleeding from the mouth…is your moral compass a little broken there, Erica?

And when things fall apart and the police connect Erica with the attacks, she follows her parents’ advice and turns snitch on everyone. “Just name names, honey. Tell us about the awful Negroes who led you astray. We know this couldn’t be your fault.”

Testosterone Level: Wow

Lots of kids, especially poor kids, break the law for various reasons: boredom, anger, a chance to make money, to make a social statement, whatever. But the knockout games are pure cheap thrills. If these kids were graffiti artists, gang members, or even drug dealers, I could understand their struggle. But this? This is just hurting people for the sake of hurting people, nothing more.

The author’s note states that the knockout games are a real St. Louis phenomena, which inspired him to write this book. It’s sad that middle school kids can become so hopeless that this is the only way to get kicks.

Rant over.

Talky Talk: White Privilege

Erica goes to a school where the police patrol the halls, where a dress code is rigidly enforced, and where one mistake can get your butt suspended. But when things go bad and the police come down hard on Kalvin and his crew, Erica is right at the forefront pointing out everyone involved. Except herself, of course. Even when the police come across photographic evidence of her own attack, she still gets off with probation.

I hate to say it, but that’s not unrealistic. The rest of the crew are Black or Latino, and all of the victims are white. The authorities don’t want to see some red haired girl from Arkansas on the news. They want to see more ‘colorful’ criminals.

When Kalvin talks about how the police once roughed up his mother so he’d get mad enough to throw a punch, I got the uncomfortable feeling a lot of people could relate.

I didn’t like the main character, but it’s because she reflects a larger ugliness.

Bonus Factors: I Really Mean It, Baby…

Steve Martin and Michael Caine in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

So Erica hooks up with Kalvin (making her even less likeable when she later turns him in). He’s Black, which is kind of exotic for her, he likes old movies, and he’s been burned by the system.

And he’s full of shit. When it comes down to it, he’s a guy who hurts people for fun, and lies to make himself look innocent. He’s got his mother snowed, believing his expulsion from school is just a temporary suspension, and all the guys who show up at his house are there to drop off homework. He gets Erica to agree to ‘no condom’ and actually uses the ‘let’s film our love,’ line. Of course he’s not going to show it to his buddies. Or the internet.

Erica learns a hard lesson about trusting guys. Especially guys who like to beat the snot out of random strangers.

Bromance Status: See Ya in Five to Ten

Reading this book was an intense thrill, but left me feeling bummed out and hollow. Which is what the author intended, I suppose.

FTC full disclosure: I received neither money nor beer for writing this review.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.