Divining Rod. By Michael Knight. Button.$23.95 cloth.
Early in Michael Knight’s first novel, Divining Rod, Simon Bell watches the beautiful Delia Holladay emerge, dripping luxuriously, from his swimming pool. The cool water runs over her hips and legs, and he admires the curves she gives to her black one-piece suit. She notices him staring and asks if he has never seen a woman in a bathing suit before. He says, “My father died right where you’re standing.” The words surprise him; he is not seeking sympathy. It is a striking moment because it reveals to Simon, and to the reader, that he is not as immune to grief as he believes. If Knight’s characters have one thing in common, it is this essential misunderstanding of themselves. All are confounded by fairly ordinary circumstances suddenly getting the best of them. Passions strike like an afternoon thunderstorm, or are stifled with great pain. Eventually regret and melancholy settle again over everything as faithfully as the next day dawns hot and humid.
It is a rare and exciting event when a young writer publishes his debut novel and a first collection of stories simultaneously. In today’s brutal publishing world, it is a sign of faith on the publisher’s part, an uncommon act of nurturing that sets a writer on his way. Knight’s stories in Dogfight and the novel Divining Rod are not only worthy of this attention but the two books establish Knight’s work as something altogether original. He is a young writer who has more than a unique voice, the qualification most often exploited, but a landscape and a vision. He is not casting about, but masterfully turning the Southern literary tradition to his own way of storytelling.
Born and raised in Alabama, he sets most of his fiction in that overheated state. Knight can tell us everything about a hot summer day, each new description of the sun and the heat and the inertia they inspire topping the last until we are positively swooning. “You could taste the summer in Alabama,” says Simon Bell in Divining Rod, “like walking into a room full of pipe smoke and breath and the closeness of bodies. It either tried your patience or made you languid and lazy in a way that I could understand.” Best for us to understand it, too, because this is the pace of Divining Rod, and there is a genius to it. The novel opens with Simon’s murder, a brutal act on a blistering July morning, then abruptly turns back to meander through a series of extended flashbacks which slowly reveal the lives of Simon, his neighbor Sam Holladay, and Sam’s young wife Delia. As the end is already known, the story unfolds under its own weight and charm, Knight expertly introducing us to other citizens of sleepy Sherwood, including Bob Robinson (entertaining for his one-liners), Bob’s young daughter Maddie (a pretty, precocious child with a crush on Delia), and Betty Fowler, a widow who roams the local golf course with a divining rod, not as crazy as she seems.
It is a cast of characters at once common and eccentric, brought together by a steady undercurrent of loneliness. Delia is a listless, impulsive beauty, not unkind but child-like in her belief that she can live a double life. As a child, she took little things from the houses her mother cleaned, playing with them secretly in her room while, downstairs, her parents quarreled and eventually drifted apart. This seems to have taught her that she can genuinely love her husband Sam, a contemplative teacher of high school history who is more than twice her age, and still plunge into a steamy summer affair with Simon, the lonely young attorney next door. When they first lass, Delia believes, “whatever happened next was a thing apart from her marriage, wholly separate. She could do this and still love her husband.” Aimless and unhappy, Simon has returned to the home of his childhood and, partly as a balm for his unhealed grief, become fascinated with memories of his late father and mother, especially the possibility that his mother was an unfaithful wife. Throughout the hazy summer, Simon and Delia seem destined to play out the same roles, oblivious to the consequences of betrayal, believing that they know how the story will end. As events come to a head on a rainy Fourth of July, Delia knows it is time to end the affair and believes no harm has been done. So well does Knight show the affair from Simon and Delia’s hapless, seemingly innocent point of view, that we almost believe her. But the quiet, long-suffering Sam has his own hidden passions, and the story ends as it began.
The ten stories in Dogfight are tinged, one way or another, with the same kind of inexorable melancholy. Most of the narrators sound like characters who have just learned to breathe deeply again, believing themselves strong, healed against the past. They are nearly always disappointed. In one of the best stories, “Now You See Her,” a single father is confronted with the combined difficulties of recovering from the death of his wife and raising a teenage son who has renamed himself X. Both father and son are distracted for a time by Grace, the new next door neighbor, who, it would appear, “has renounced clothing altogether.” The father begins to think about the possibility of dating Grace, but when finally face to face with her, he finds he has no idea what to say or how to behave. He has forgotten how to be at ease with a woman and, alarmingly, realizes he is in competition with his son. In “Poker,” a group of 20-something friends watch one of their number go through a divorce. He shows up for the weekly poker games, they think he is okay, but to their dismay reality seeps through when he talks about his dreams and suddenly starts smoking.
A few of the stories explore the fierce love that is within families. “A Bad Man, So Pretty” delves into the angry, hopeless love a boy has for his trouble-making older brother, Winston. Jack thinks he understands the parameters of their relationship and his role in the family until one night he fights Winston, beating him up badly and forever changing the balance of their relationship. Other stories present characters who are surprised to find themselves navigating unfamiliar emotional territory. In “Tenant,” an ambivalent teacher of history, finds himself alone on his landlady’s property after she dies in a fire. Her dog survives, as do the charred remains of her house, and, to his surprise, the narrator finds he cares about both.
All of Knight’s stories are characterized by smooth, confident prose that allows room for wry observation and startling description. There is a cumulative effect to his work, a building of mood at once languid, sensuous, and genteel. Men admire women, women dress in pretty skirts and tie their hair back in ribbons, dogs are noble and loyal. Yes, dogs. “Dogfight” is the title story of the collection, but nearly every story contains a dog that serves as a catalyst of change. When an attendant at the pound asks Reed in “Dogfight” what he talks to his dog, Hi John, about (after the dogfight that put Hi John in the pound and will bring Reed and his ex-wife back together), Reed answers unblinkingly, “Women,” and the attendant knows better than to respond with a joke. Winston in “Bad Man, So Pretty” has a nameless dog who has a habit of throwing himself at cars just as Winston hurls himself against life and authority. And the abandoned dog Shiloh in “Tenant” helps the narrator come to terms with his own vulnerability. Dogs are serious business in Knight’s stories, and he writes well about their symbiotic relationship with people.
Shortly after the publication of these books, Knight published a short story in The New Yorker, “Birdland,” which successfully combines Alabama football, the migration patterns of a particular African parrot, readings from the Iliad, and a casual love affair between a Northern blonde and an Alabama boy. In a magical bit of storytelling, all of these things are woven together so that they comment on and deepen our understanding of the others. In writing so often about Alabama, perhaps Knight is following the old advice to “write about what you know.” But if he chooses to broaden the horizon, I think his growing audience will follow. So far he has proven that his writing is intelligent and rich and seemingly getting better all the time.