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Interview with Gail Godwin about Grief Cottage

Gail Godwin’s latest crosses a mental boundary by Rob Neufeld Asheville author Gail Godwin, now a Woodstock, NY resident, comes back home here Wed., June 14 to present her new novel, “Grief Cottage” at Malaprop’s Bookstore, 7 p.m. “Grief Cottage” is the story of an orphaned, sensitive, troubled boy, named…See More
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Knight looks at the end or serenity

by Rob Neufeld

 

            Michael Knight’s new book, “Eveningland” (Atlantic Monthly Press), is like “The Twilight Zone” in ways, and not just because the titles are synonyms.

            They both come in episodes.  “Eveningland” is composed of six short stories and a novella. 

            And they both mine a persistent feeling of dread.  For Rod Serling, it had been the dread of nuclear holocaust and McCarthyism; for Knight, it’s dread of the dusk of American contentment.

            In addition to this distinction, there are other significant differences.

            Knight locates his characters in one setting, contemporary Mobile, Alabama—during the time of hurricanes.  And his suggestive endings are not, as with “Twilight Zone,” ironic shockers, but transitional fades.

            With his feet situated in affluence and his head swimming in the mist of disillusionment, Knight shares a kinship with Alabama writer Walker Percy, whose classic 1961 novel, “The Moviegoer,” Knight quotes in an epigraph.

            “It should be quite a sight, the going under of the evening land,” Binx Bolling’s Aunt Emily tells him in “The Moviegoer.”  “That’s us all right.  And I can tell you, my young friend, it is evening.  It is very late.”

            Knight presents “Eveningland” at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 6 p.m., Thurs., Mar. 8 ((828-254-6374); and at 7:30 p.m., April 4 at Western Carolina University as part of its four-day Spring Literary Festival (828-227-3265, www.LitFestival.org).

 

Old man and the boy

 

            In the first story, Knight creates two characters with whom you feel he identifies because of the sentimentality attached to them: Henry Bragg, age 17, who’s “somehow unsullied by his blessings”; and an old man who lives in a houseboat on Mobile Bay and whose first person narration sometimes enters the story.

            “Each of us, every minute,” the old man muses, thinking of the boy’s passage from innocence, is “a little closer to the end, not unhappy but nagged sometimes by the unspeakable misgivings of contentment.”

            Henry had fallen for a tough girl and lost her, but that isn’t his only heartbreak.  He had a job patrolling oil leakage for the EPA after Deepwater Horizon; and had been with the girl when the spill had reached his area.

            Knight’s treatment of the disaster puzzles me.  He has it spelling the end of Henry’s childhood, yet the narrator reassures us, “eventually, the world returns to normal.”  Henry’s mom says, “This would not be the end of the world.”  And, in the end, we read that the “sport fishermen started coming back.”

            Is the boy right about the end of an epoch, or is he just swamped by adolescent angst?  Is his mom right; and is the wise old man also correct about recovery?

            I can appreciate Knight’s focus on the boy, but isn’t ecological destruction the larger story?  Shouldn’t we see grown-ups delving into that murk?

 

People adrift

 

            Knight’s protagonists are often adrift, and in memorable ways.

            Daphne Schnell, a college student in the story “Smash and Grab,” clobbers a thief and knocks him out—twice!  (I think that skull cracks are often underplayed in fiction and film.)

            She concocts a scheme to devastate her rich, divorced dad and informs the astounded burglar, “You’re out of touch.  I’m your average sophomore.”

            Hadley Walsh, a young woman who teaches art at Our Lady of the Roses (the title of the story), doesn’t believe in God.  She believes in mystery and patterns, and finds herself alienated from her life.  She holds her breath while driving through a long tunnel and emerges seeing the world coming back into focus, “like magic,” as she exhales.

            Marcus Weems, the sixth richest man in Alabama, tries in the story, “The King of Dauphin Island,” to buy up the diminishing barrier island after his wife has died of cancer.  He even imagines carting in a hundred million tons of sand to counter erosion.

            His quest ends in surrender, not to despair, but to an accommodation to ordinariness (something Binx Bolling dreaded).

            Do we, as readers, want Marcus to be engaged in something spectacular, like a true king?  Should we, like him, embrace comfort in the face of obsolescence?

            Marital disaffection plagues many Knight couples.

            In “Grand Old Party,” a married man, referred to as “you,” takes a 12-gauge shotgun to his wife’s lover’s place.  His wife, Hannah, had connected with Howard Tate at a GOP headquarters.

            To such stressed people, omens stem from common events.  A Chinese food deliverer rings Tate’s doorbell as “you” point your gun at him.

            “I want you know I’m a staunch advocate of the Second Amendment,” Tate prates.  And, Knight writes, “right then, a door opens at the end of the hall and there’s Hannah in her bra and half-slip, hugging her arms…still capable of inspiring desire, all of her silhouetted by the lamplight at her back.”

            Daytime soaps could benefit from such humor and poetry.

            Later, when Tate begins to lose his hold on his nymph, he opens a Chinese fortune cookie and discovers that it’s blank.  A Chinese bureaucratic foul-up, he complains.

            Knight is indeed funny.

            But, you can see he uses his wry jokes as narrative props.  In the novella, “Landfall,” Angus Ransom goes to close the hold to the engine room after a hatch blows off the ship he’s captaining in a hurricane.  A bird in a gilded cage bobs toward him and the bird says, “I’m so alone.”  That’s Dinah, my mynah, the seasoned pilot tells Angus.

            “Landfall” is the big prize in the “Eveningland” volume.

            It sums up Knight’s themes and weaves them into the stories of the Ransom family’s several members as a hurricane disaster befalls them.

            Muriel, the matriarch, prepares for the hurricane by storing water in bathtubs.  She accidentally leaves a tap on and loses her footing in a pool of water.  The brain concussion that results opens her mind to a scene in which her late husband, A.B., confronts a burglar. 

            The intruder is Mitchell King, a slow-witted neighbor boy who’s wearing Muriel’s mink stole because he’d been cold.  A.B. later cries over the near-homicide.

            Knight brings sympathy to the downtrodden.  His main concern, however, is with the benighted. 

            Muriel’s wayward son, an unmarried wilderness man named Percy, belatedly leaves his outpost to drive to the hospital where his mom is in the ICU.  The storm is at its peak and his odyssey strips him.

            In “Landfall,” Knight puts forward family, ethics, and curiosity about, if not hope in, the future as ports in the storm.

            They are barriers against the feeling of sadness, which, at the start of the novella, Muriel compares to rare orchids.  “Sadness,” Knight states.  “The word itself didn’t do the feeling justice.  What she felt was a more complicated alchemy.”

 

Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times.  He is the author and editor of six books, and the publisher of the website, “The Read on WNC.”   He can be reached at RNeufeld@charter.net and 505-1973.  Follow him @WNC_chronicler.

 

 

 

            

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Thanks Rob, it's definitely one of my favorite books of the season. I hope you go and see him when he is at Malaprop's.

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