Book Review of the short story collection “Eveningland” by Michael Knight.
In this book, Michael Knight brings us a collection of short stories to give us the flavor of the people and the location of Mobile Alabama. Short summaries of the stories are as follows:
- An elderly man tells us the story “Water and Oil,” as he observes his young neighbor suffer through his first crush.
- The story “Smash and Grab” is about a home break-in that goes terribly wrong, with a twist ending.
- An art teacher in a strict Catholic school is at the center of “Our Lady of the Roses,” where she looks at her world, and wonders how, or if, she can find relief from that which is suffocating her.
- A 50th birthday for the member of what seems to be the perfect Mobile family is the backdrop of the story “Jubilee.”
- In the story “Grand Old Party,” a man realizes his wife is having an affair, and he decides to take his shotgun and confront her at her lover’s home (told in second person).
- The still grieving and (very) wealthy widower in the story “The King of Dauphin Island” suddenly gets the idea into his head that he can buy Dauphin Island and everything there, until his daughters get wind of the project. The last line of this story connects nicely to…
- “Landfall,” which is a story (with a large number of characters) of mostly one family that delves into the events surrounding the approach of a disastrous hurricane.
One thing you might notice about these stories how Knight ends them – or doesn’t, for that matter. Don’t worry; there won’t be any spoilers in this review. However, you should know that not all of Knight’s stories include concrete conclusions. To be fair, sometimes that’s a positive thing, particularly if the point of the story is to give the reader an outline of a character (or group of characters) life, rather than a conflict they need to overcome. It can give you a feeling that you’re witnessing a vignette, which can be very effective. For example, in the story “Jubilee,” all of the action takes place prior to the birthday party, focusing on this couple – their relationship with each other and their own places in their world. Just when we’re expecting something to happen that would upset this careful balance, Knight ends the story. I found that this worked better when Knight kept his major cast to only 2-3 characters. In those stories, I was easily able to focus my imagination on how things might play out after the conclusion of the text. Knight didn’t stick with this format in his story “Landfall,” but I have to admit that this made me feel that the many characters twirling around one another was used to parallel the hurricane he placed at the center of the story. However, I also felt that that this left far too many loose ends, which was unnerving for me; but perhaps that was Knight’s point.
Another thing that you’ll find in this book is Knight’s tenderly mellow style of writing that is expressive without being fancy. Knight instills into these stories the type of ambiance that makes you realize just how much he must love Mobile, and how close his personal relationship is with this city. However, it also occurred to me that Knight never allowed these beloved locations to overshadow his characters and their personalities. In fact, with few exceptions, these stories could easily have taken place in any major seaside city (with appropriate changes in specific city-related details, of course).
Of course, I may be wrong about this, since I’ve never visited Alabama, but I’m not convinced that the universality of these stories was always a good thing. What I mean by that is, when I read fiction I need the author to transport me to those places where I’ve never been. Unfortunately, Knight didn’t succeed in doing that for me with some of these tales. Even so, I still appreciated how sharp of these stories were, and how Knight made his characters so appealing. I also have to say that Knight’s using the second person voice in the story “Grand Old Party” was particularly impressive. This is a risky mechanic to employ, because it is so unconventional. Thankfully, Knight pulled this off with perfection, which deserves admiration. In short, although I found a few small things that didn’t work for me, Knight really shows he has a mastery of this form, and I can recommend this collection with a strong four stars out of five.
“Eveningland” by Michael Knight, published by Grove Atlantic, Atlantic Monthly Press, released March 7, 2017 is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.