Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Unveiling

In Michael Knight's first works of fiction, mysteries and truths emerge from seemingly small events.

By John Freeman

NOVEMBER 30, 1998: 

DOGFIGHT AND OTHER STORIES, by Michael Knight. Plume, 161 pages, $11.95 paper.

DIVINING ROD, by Michael Knight. Dutton, 196 pages, $22.95.

It's usually hard to trust people who have secrets. In fiction, however, characters without secrets are the ones we do not trust and do not like. In Michael Knight's stunning, precociously wise double debut, everyone has a soft lump of self kept shrouded from the world -- and only when some turn of fate forces these secrets to the surface can the characters divine what their futures hold.

Dogfight and Other Stories features 10 moody tales about the mysterious bonds between people who allow each other only unspoken concessions. In the charming opening story, "Now You See Her," a young veterinarian and his 13-year-old son, Xavier, who calls himself X, secretly spy on their new neighbor, who it appears "has renounced clothing altogether." With his wife dead not two years and his son already past the cigarette-smoking stage of adolescence, the father knows that a talk with X about the birds and the bees is irrelevant: "suddenly he is too old for all that." But when she appears one night and the two voyeurs, at their respective windows, see that her dog is convulsing in a fever, they must confront what they have silently shared.

In "Gerald's Monkey," a young man who spends his summer rebuilding a ship with career laborers learns more than "the value of a dollar" when a freak accident gives him the power to quash the worker who has been dogging him all season. Instead of doing so, he lies to protect him. The heavy silence in moments when characters willingly bite their tongues recurs frequently in this collection, and Knight proves himself a master at scripting them. The language in these tales is brilliant, as if the words were impressed on

Kodachrome rather than paper. From the first sentence, you fall into them easily, and in all but one or two instances, Knight brings you out gracefully, with a residue of wonder.

Animals, especially dogs, frequently become a repository for the secrets between people in Dogfight. In "Sleeping with My Dog," a skilled mosaic craftsman named Banks begins to suspect that the girlfriend he met at a laundromat has begun cheating on him. When he obliges her request to get a dog, Banks begins to spend more time cuddling with it than with her (at one point he says despairingly, guiltily, "I have to stop sleeping with my dog"). When he finally confronts her after her return from another long-distance business trip with her slick sales manager, he finds himself looking out the window, the dog by his side, trying "to remember if I have made Holly any promises. Or she me. I can't remember." And in the riveting title story, a recently divorced man sleeps with his neighbor's wife after their dogs fight. When his dog, named "Hi John," is impounded for a week and the impulsive affair ends with his neighbor punching him out, he and his ex-wife realize more than they ever could have imagined about the bond they still share.

Where Knight's stories unfold their mysteries slowly, his debut novel, Divining Rod, opens with a bang: "Sam Holladay was sixty-three years old when he jabbed a snub-nosed .38 revolver into Simon Bell's chest and pulled the trigger." The novel then deftly recounts the story of what precipitated the tragedy: the affair between 28-year-old Simon and Sam's much younger wife, Delia.

Without a trace of gimmickry, the story shuttles back and forth between Simon's first-person narration of his boyhood in Sherwood, Alabama, and third-person accounts that revolve around Delia, Sam, and two members of the family next door, ultimately revealing how much history can be compressed into one seemingly senseless action. A sense of the futility of trying to control the future pervades this lyrical novel. Sam believes the gun he buys on his honeymoon will protect his bride, but he can never imagine that it will destroy their lives. Simon's mother begins seeing a sorcerer to see what the future will bring for her son, but she cannot fathom that what will eventually destroy Simon lies in the troubled family circumstances she created for him. As for Simon and Delia -- at the start of their affair, these two people, "both of them thinking they knew exactly what was happening, exactly how all of this . . . was going to end," could never have imagined how truly terrible the ending would be.

The novel gets its title from the divining rod that Sherwood resident Bettie Fowler brings out to the golf course behind Simon's house every night, looking for the gold her late husband claimed he buried there. It is at this task that she becomes the sole witness to Simon's murder. Near the end of his affair, Simon tries to imagine "divining in scientific terms. Tiny particles of intent, passing invisibly, delicately, from the rod into its bearer, leading him toward his intended destination." Readers should feel grateful that Michael Knight has listened to his own divining rod, and brought forth these two unexpected treasures.

John Freeman lives in Concord, Massachusetts.

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