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BOOK REVIEW By Mike Hudson

"University of Strangers," By Bob Pfeifer, 160 pp. Power City Press, Paper, $19.95.

The power of the media in our celebrity-obsessed culture and the ways in which real news becomes increasingly indistinguishable from gossip and opinion in the 24/7 cycle of cable television and the Internet provide the backdrop for Bob Pfeifer's remarkable first novel, "University of Strangers."

Centering on the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy, on All Souls Day, 2007, the novel is an exercise in alternative history, one in which a corrupt Italian justice system wrongly convicted Amanda Knox -- an exchange student from Seattle and Kercher's roommate -- and her Italian boyfriend, Rafaelle Sollecito, for the heinous crime.

Basing its case on evidence that was slender at best and manufactured at worst, the prosecution won convictions against Knox and Sollecito, and each was sentenced to 26 years in prison. Knox's appeal is currently being heard in Perugia, a hilltop city in the Umbria region.

Much of the evidence would have been laughed out of an American court. DNA samples linking Knox and Sollecito to the crime were so small as to be unrepeatable, meaning that no one could repeat the tests to see if the results claimed by the prosecution were accurate.

Furthermore, the prosecution claim that Kercher had been murdered because she'd dressed as a vampire on Halloween and that a comic book concerning vampires had been found at the 23-year-old Sollecito's apartment was simply laughable insofar as motive was concerned.

To this seeming miscarriage of justice Pfeifer adds the Strangers of the title, a loose-kit group of more or less famous writers, musicians and film stars dedicated to truth, justice and the American Way. Led by the late Spanish author Roberto Bolano and largely unknown to each other, they head to Italy in an attempt to find out who killed Kercher and, perhaps, free Knox along the way.

Pfeifer's blending of fact and fiction, of invented characters and real people like Bolano, Sean Penn and Iggy Pop into a fabulist and, at times, surreal storyline that, nonetheless, would not seem particularly shocking were it to appear as a headline item in your morning newspaper or a topic of conversation on the Rachel Maddow show is extraordinary.

By blurring even the line between fact and fiction, Pfeifer essentially calls into question everything we hear, see or read in the media, all the while writing an intensely personal story about lost love, loneliness and the sometimes bitter outcomes that can result when people attempt to bury personal problems by taking up causes and crusades.

In a previous life, Pfeifer was the frontman and creative force behind the famed Cleveland indie band Human Switchboard. While he hasn't released any of his own music in nearly 30 years, a drop card contained in the book provides a link that allows the user to download a five-song selection of all-new music he recorded with his current band, the Tabby Chinos.

Featuring a cast of rock heavyweights like Cynthia Sley and Pat Place of the Bush Tetras, Don Fleming of Gumball and Jim Sclavunos of the Bad Seeds, the music is edgy, complex and modern, and provides a fitting soundtrack for the edgy, complex and modern novel it accompanies.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 1, 2011