By W. Perry Hall/Contributing Writer
A great writer creates stories that refresh our perceptions. Familiarity often blinds us to the beauty of the world around us, so that when the “writer shakes up the familiar scene,” as Anais Nin said, it is “as if by magic, we see a new meaning in it.”
I’m not going out on a limb in calling Michael Knight a wizard of Mobile Bay. After all, his “Eveningland: Stories,” a “story cycle” comprising six short stories and a novella set in the past decade, teems with abracadabra moments for anyone who has lived within 50 miles of Mobile Bay, such as: hearing “the buzz of an outboard motor fussing in through the screen” of a home on the water; smelling batter “on the kitchen exhaust” as a boat “cruises under [Dog River] bridge;” meandering off Dog River under “cypress branches arching over the creek, painting a filigree in shadow;” viewing from a distance “fingers of blue smoke” above factories “like machines for making clouds;” wondering at the shades of red in a Catholic church’s stained-glass rose; using as a makeout den a canopy beneath a magnolia “at least three stories tall,” with its “cool, shadowy space …, the world and the sky barely visible through the leaves;” and duck hunting on “cold, early mornings,” watching “mist over the water and the lazy rising of the sun” with a “dog shivering in the blind.”
Knight, a St. Paul’s alum, now serves as an English professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. He anchors his latest story collection with a quote from “The Moviegoer,” Walker Percy’s 1961 award-winning novel set in New Orleans in which the aunt of young, lonely and disillusioned Binx Bolling lamented the “going under of the evening land,” by which she meant the decline of a way of life from the Old South. She explained her disappointment at her inability to “pass on to [Binx] the one heritage of the men of our family, a certain quality of spirit, a gaiety, a sense of duty, a nobility worn lightly, a sweetness, a gentleness with women — the only good things the South ever had and the only things that really matter in this life.”
As W.J. Cash explained in his 1941 “The Mind of the South,” “the gentlemanly idea, driven from England by Cromwell, [took] refuge in the South and fashioned for itself a world to its heart’s desire: a world … wholly dominated by ideals of honor and chivalry and ‘noblesse.’”
While Knight’s characters are mostly those whom many “outsiders” might consider the usual suspects to mourn the sinking of evening land — mostly white in the upper-middle to upper classes, his stories seem to subtly chronicle, in a life cycle, this “going under” by way of education and nature, as the older generations pass and the younger ones recede further. Knight does not romanticize the genteel way of life. Instead, as in “The Moviegoer,” most of the characters here float adrift — lonely, restless, regretful — in the doldrums of an existential dilemma or spiritual crisis. Perhaps more significantly, all of their lives are overshadowed by the accomplishments, or haunted by the sins, of the father.
In “Our Lady of the Roses,” set over the two weeks of Mardi Gras, a 26-year-old art teacher at a parochial K-8 confronts her first life crisis in the confluence of an anticipated marriage proposal, the head nun’s push for her to teach a more liturgical curriculum, her disillusionment with the church and her doubts concerning her faith since attending Brown and the loss of her cat, until being pushed to the edge by the actualization of a recurring dream.
“Eveningland” transports the reader past dozens of familiar places, such as Fort Morgan and Dog River, in “Water and Oil,” a poignant story of innocence lost and the ache of nostalgia. In the summer of 2011, 17-year-old Bragg is charged with scouting between forts Gaines and Morgan on his skiff for signs of the ominous, obsidian cloud of oil slowly approaching from Deepwater Horizon.
While operating out of his dad’s Dog River marina, Bragg infatuates over a 19-year-old marina employee, a “damaged beauty” with a rough beau and no aspirations. I take a moment here to heap extra praise on Knight for brilliantly pegging a sentiment from my distant past, which I suspect many other men experienced in younger years: “He could not have explained the intensity of his attraction to [her], that blissful ache that welled up in his chest at the sight of her barefooting across the dock, the feeling a distant cousin of nostalgia, as if he’d already won and loved and lost her.” Truly, fiction reveals “truths that reality obscures,” as Jessamyn West wrote.
At the other end of life, the old narrator, a widower living in a houseboat docked at the marina, concludes with this insight into lost love in youth: “I can tell you this: there will be other girls, other disasters. And there will be nights to come, his life mostly behind him, when he will long to hurt like that again.”
“Jubilee” is the collection’s middle story, in which an attorney approaches age 50, and his homemaker wife in Point Clear plans a jubilee celebration at the “old hotel” (i.e., the Grand). Knight nicely contrasts the birthday jubilee with the biological jubilee in Mobile Bay, “the only place in the world where shrimp and crab and flounder occasionally abandon deep water in the summer and swarm the shallows for no good reason, practically leaping into nets and buckets, presenting themselves for a feast.”
Knight deftly captures the Grand’s mystique, with its “history shining like wax on every surface, in every room and hall, on the brass-railed bar, windows reflecting wavery images of passing figures, walking paths buckled by the roots of oak trees even older than the hotel.”
In “Grand Old Party,” a cuckold-mad 50-something travels with 12-gauge shotgun — with its “black walnut” and “engraved plates” — to a home in a fictionalized Oakleigh district to confront his wife of 31 years and the horner, with whom she recently began an affair after they volunteered together for the 2012 Romney campaign.
The “King of Dauphin Island” is a local 68-year-old real estate tycoon, “the sixth richest man in Alabama,” who just lost his wife to cancer. He moves to an older condo complex he owns on Dauphin Island and begins, of a sudden, a buying spree for “all” private land on the Island in what can only be seen as his attempt to rescue the island from development and destruction and navigate his way through grief after his fortune proved essentially worthless in his efforts to save his late wife from cancer.
The pièce de résistance of “Eveningland” is “Landfall,” a novella that is both intense and heartrending. It follows the family of a recently deceased shipbuilding magnate fighting to survive and come together during a fictional Category 3 hurricane bearing down on Mobile, after the septuagenarian matriarch slips and hits her head on the tile bathroom floor, soaked by a tub overflowing in preparation for the storm.
That evening, her 40-something daughter waits in the hospital, running on generators, as her mom suffers seizures from a brain hemorrhage. Meanwhile, her two brothers, in their late 30s, fight the furious forces of nature trying to return to see their mom, who may not make it through the night.
One brother must survive the raging Gulf after taking a crew out to save a commercial fishing vessel that the family company just built. The vessel is seaworthy but not quite fully finished, and thus would risk much more damage at the shipyard.
The other journeys south from the family hunting camp — now his residence — up the Tombigbee River. Past nightfall, he finds all lanes of Interstate 65 directed north and chances a nameless road going toward Mobile. Thirty miles from the city limits, he comes upon a bridge with what appears to be a foot of water flowing over it from the creek swollen from the storm surge. His truck stalls out, of course, and rocks “in the current like a boat on gentle seas.” As he is about to jump out the window, “the railing creaked and splintered and the current washed his back end around so he was looking upstream a moment, his rear wheels poised over nothing. Then it was like the bottom dropped out of the Earth … as he plunged into the creek … water pouring through the window, beer cans floating by his head, the whole world upside-down and dark.”
Knight concludes “Landfall” with one of the most emotionally stirring scenes of any story, long or short, that I’ve read in quite some time, without the need to resort, as lesser authors do, to the sentimental or the mawkish.
The stories in the edifying “Eveningland” gleam like moonbeams on Mobile Bay, evoking both viscerally and visually the land, history, weather, landmarks, waters and people of this storied region.
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017