First things first: Michael Knight’s prose is pristine, as watertight as the skiffs, barges, and tankers that occupy Mobile Bay. His new book, “Eveningland,” offers six loosely connected short stories and one novella grounded in the geography and culture of modern-day Mobile, Ala.
The South is present here — fresh crabmeat, Spanish moss, reverberations of the Civil War — but never nostalgic or self-indulgent. A sense of place and past is strong, but it never overshadows the compelling human narratives at the center of every story.
Each piece is as impeccable and varied as Knight’s readers have come to expect. He shows us the coming-of-age of a marina-owner’s son through the devastation of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and his first dazzling heartbreak in “Water and Oil.”
“Jubilee” uses an elaborate 50th birthday party to sketch well-to-do Mobile, with its wealthy veneer of tradition and its sandy foundations, where “life revolves from meal to meal” and conversation can be “more rhythm than exchange of information.”
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“Smash and Grab,” included in 2004’s Best American Mystery Stories, is a riveting tale of a burglar thwarted by a disturbing teenage girl. Some stories are muted and introspective, others throttle with suspense — all earn their keep.
In this collection, billed as an interconnected short-story cycle, Knight provides both diversity and unity. The eccentric, newly widowed real-estate mogul, the jealous husband with a 12-gauge, and the emotionally suffocated young art teacher all have their own independent piece, but they work to create a larger portrait.
Characters populate each others’ stories; a minor figure in one piece may receive more attention in another, or the protagonist of one narrative may pass through elsewhere. While some of these particular crossovers may be trite or heavy-handed (there are evidently only two police officers in all of Mobile, and they appear in three different stories), overall the cross-pollinations connect and enrich the book.
The collection ends with the novella “Landfall,” a saga of one family whose preparation for an imminent, devastating hurricane unveils their individual, personal struggles. It follows Murial, described in “Jubilee” as “the perfect Mobile lady,” and her husband, children and grandchildren in what can only be described as an intimate human drama — a novella-as-microscope. What may seem like a lengthy addendum on its face ultimately becomes the emotional crescendo, the culmination of the entire collection.
While Knight may not be known in the short story genre, he demonstrates an undeniable mastery of it. “Eveningland” is both expansive and contained, exploratory and insular. No one can deny this author’s command of sentence-level writing, and his paragraphs flow in flawless succession like warm waves from the Gulf.
Some readers, however, might be challenged by Knight’s unwillingness to offer firm resolutions to his stories. Most of his endings are deeply nuanced, and a few are outright cliffhangers.
In the opening story, the narrator observes “clouds racing past like time itself, each of us, every minute, a little closer to the end, not unhappy but nagged sometimes by the unspeakable misgivings of contentment.”
The stories of “Eveningland” bring us closer to the end, but they do not bring us contentment. That’s excellent literature.
“Eveningland” by Michael Knight (288 pages; Atlantic Monthly Press; $25)