Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Undertow

Michael Knight’s Eveningland centers on life in and around Mobile Bay

Photo: Judith Welch

In his most recent novel, The Typist, Knoxville writer Michael Knight roamed as far away as General MacArthur’s post-war Japan, but he began his career as a writer exploring the lives and locales of his native Alabama. Now Knight has returned to his hometown in a new collection of linked stories called Eveningland, which focuses closely on the experiences of affluent white families in and around Mobile Bay. Their privileged lives seem to proceed in concert with the bay itself—glittering surfaces which may conceal darker drags and undercurrents. In this world, a sense of timeless tradition lives alongside volatility and loss.

The characters featured in Eveningland are the owners of shipyards and hardware store chains, wealthy landowners and attorneys. They are the sons of these men, expected to take up the reins of their fathers’ businesses and their social gentility—and also their wives and daughters, many of whom seem almost not to exist at all beyond the insular spheres of their family homes. Knight presents his characters with their privilege unconcealed, choosing to engage them on their own terms.

We learn, for example, that one story’s protagonist “doesn’t need the money” from her job as an art teacher at a Catholic school. When she tussles with a nun over the secular art lessons, the story’s tension comes not from the implied threat against her job, then, but from the larger question of what kind of future she will choose for herself. The same goes for family tensions in the collection’s final work, the gorgeous novella, “Landfall.” Though the story describes the son of a prominent family as a worrying disappointment, refusing to conform to the social expectations of his mother, we discover that his life is nevertheless tied to his family’s in inextricable ways.

Throughout the book, Knight regards “the right kind of Mobile family” with irony but also with understanding. As Kirkus points out in a starred review, he writes of these characters “with such deftness and delicacy that the reader is ambushed, in the end, by mingled envy, pity, and empathy.” But Knight also seems to be saying something here about the difficulty of shaking off the golden handcuffs: for those who are trapped, what’s most despised about this life is also what’s most impossible to escape.

Two stories about home invasions uncover the darkness more explicitly. In “Smash and Grab,” a burglar named Cashdollar finds himself concussed and duct-taped to a chair by an unpredictable teenager home from her elite boarding school. With her casual violence and glib confidence about evading consequence, she manages to scare a career criminal. For his part, Cashdollar reveals his own dangerous streak by focusing obsessively on the moral lines he won’t cross during his crimes. Precisely because he insists on repeating the line, “I’ve never hurt anyone in my life,” we stop believing it’s true.

“Grand Old Party” details another invasion, this crime more personally motivated: “Ivy on the bricks. The neighborhood a dream of landscaping and old houses. Older oaks. The 12-gauge in your hands couldn’t feel more out of place. No sign of your wife’s car but maybe she parked in the garage. Use the barrel to ring the doorbell. This is what a man does when he’s been made a fool.” In this darkly funny story of bungled revenge, we see how a sense of entitlement—personal and cultural—can ultimately turn itself inside out, leading to self-destruction.

Throughout this collection, the beauty and danger of the Bay itself becomes a barometer of the characters’ choices and the larger forces which press on their lives. Sometimes the gentle tides of the water bring quiet reassurance, though loss, too, can arrive like a slow, encroaching threat, imperceptible from the shore. In the weeks following the Deepwater Horizon spill, Knight writes, “the evening news broadcast endless video shot from helicopters, rainbows of oil on the surface of the Gulf, vast murky swaths of it beneath, and though we understood there was nothing to be gained from rubbernecking our misfortune, we couldn’t turn it off, tracking the oil’s progress as it drifted from the coast of Louisiana to the coast of Mississippi, ever closer, always closer, the ruined well pumping black gallons of it, black as a bad mood.”

In a memorable story, “The King of Dauphin Island,” the “sixth richest man” in Alabama goes on a quixotic real-estate buying spree after his wife’s death, accumulating as much of the economically-troubled island as possible. Absorbing the rhythms of coastal life, he develops a sense of the profound relationship between this place and his own loss: “What he felt in those moments, pelicans skimming the chop, tankers lugging cargo to ports unknown, was not loneliness or loss, as you might expect, not the weight of tragedy but its opposite, pure lightness, the hole left inside him by Suzette’s death as big and hollow as a zeppelin and just as buoyant, as if the shape of her absence might lift him up and carry him away.” Still, his socially conventional daughters don’t see the logic here, and from his balcony view, he senses trouble coming, “natural gas wells burning way out in the Gulf like the first glimmers of an inkling, like the signal fires of his grief.” As Publishers Weekly notes in another starred review, “these often funny and heartfelt stories explore life in its messy fullness while also exuding a deep, wistful wisdom.”

Eveningland is tough to put down, thanks to Knight’s masterful command of pacing and suspense. The stories make surprising reversals, and in the process they leave us with the same feeling toward these characters that the Bay instills in them—a sense that whatever the upheavals and changeability of weather may reveal to us, deeper, unreachable mysteries will always lurk beneath the surface.

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