by David Byron Queen
Midway through Michael Knight’s sublime new collection Eveningland, I realized he’d done a remarkable thing. Having already skillfully transcended one “home invasion” narrative—the collection’s standout: the twisting and gutsy “Smash and Grab”—he’d gone and done it again. “Grand Old Party” begins, as does the former story, with a man forcefully entering a home that isn’t his own, only to have the scale of his initial power turned around on him as the story unfolds—in this case, to bumble through a sloppy hostage scenario, before spending the rest of the story hiding in a pantry.
Knight is a master at this kind of quiet subversion of expectation. His stories take left turn after left turn and end up delivering the reader to a place they weren’t expecting to be. In “Our Lady of the Roses,” a postgrad art teacher named Hadley clashes with the rigid demands of her school’s administrators, only to later drive away on a lunch break without certainty of a destination, or even her return. In the collection’s opener, “Water and Oil,” a fairly straightforward coming-of-age story is nimbly upended by the continual reminder that its narrator, a restless older man, is likely making most of it up.
This subversion, however, isn’t purely for sport—or, as the great Mississippi writer Barry Hannah once put it, “games about writing.” The stories are grounded in real places, real people and real lives. In fact, it’s their subversion that often generates their realism—not the other way around. As often is the case in life, sometimes it’s the things that don’t happen that leave the most impact. The loudest moments? Those of quiet.
Quiet is the key to Knight’s stories. They glitter with muted, poetic observations:
And Hadley had loved Providence in some ways—how the leaves came alive in their dying every fall and how the old brick dorms gave her dreams of upright New England ghosts”; “Across the bay, paper mills and chemical plants exhaled fingers of blue smoke, beautiful from that distance, like machines for making clouds.”
In stories like the lasting and profound “Jubilee,” the dramatic tension is as subdued as a whisper. In this story, time itself is the most significant antagonistic force—its powerful final line the payoff of its patience, and attention to line by line detail.
While reading Eveningland, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another legendary Alabama-born story writer: the great Tobias Wolff. Like Wolff, the brilliance of Knight’s economy is most obvious in his endings, which nearly every time achieve a difficult, two-pronged task: not only do they recast and contextualize each sentence leading up to it, but extend the stories’ and the characters’ potential into an imaginative infinity. Also like Wolff, Knight has a generous heart and an eye for quirky, comedic irony. One strange anecdote in the collection’s elegiac novella, “Landfall,” tells of a man with a fear of dentists so great that he has his teeth removed so he’ll never have to visit one again. In “Grand Old Party,” the shotgun wielding husband decides to help himself to some of the Chinese delivery that arrived while holding his wife and her lover hostage. For starters, he’s hungry, and because, well, he did pay for it, as his wife points out.
Even Knight’s satirical targets are offered ample sympathy and humanity. As is the case with Marcus Weems in the miraculous “The King of Dauphin Island,” a recent widower—and the sixth wealthiest man in all of Alabama—who, in a kind of grief-stricken mania, decides to buy out each and every property of the eroding, hurricane-wracked island in the Mobile Bay. The story’s larger than life premise gradually pivots from a parable of capitalistic excess to the poignant story of a man navigating a broken heart.
What ties the collection together is Mobile—with most of its stories set during the Gulf’s climatically challenging period of the early 2010s: from around the time of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, through its subsequent hurricanes. A Mobile native himself, Knight smartly anchors each story in the area’s complex social hierarchy, resilient topography, and tenacious and contradictory history (“shining like wax on every surface”). Though mainly in the backdrop, this gives each story weight and depth even when their stakes may seem rather defiantly small-scale.
Though in spite of its layers of history, Eveningland, much like Knight’s lucid prose, seems to come alive most fully in the present—a place where “you can feel your whole life funneled hard into the here and now: nothing before this moment, nothing after.”
A sweet home, indeed.
David Byron Queen is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. He writes frequently for The Rumpus and has also had work in VICE, Hobart and McSweeney’s.
See Michael Knight on tour throughout the South in March and April, including TurnRow Books in Greenwood, Mississippi, March 16.