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It is the rare first novel that generates the kind of buzz attending Michael Knight's Divining Rod. Rarer still is the simultaneous publication of any author's debut novel and collected short stories. But with literary luminaries such as Frederick Busch, Mary Morris, Winston Groom, Lewis Nordan, Clyde Edgerton, and Madison Smartt Bell -- the list goes on -- queuing up to offer their enthusiastic praise, it is clear that 28-year-old Michael Knight isn't just any author.
The ten short fictions collected in Dogfight and Other Stories -- all but two of which have been previously published in an assortment of literary magazines -- encompass an enormous range of human experience. Like Raymond Carver, Knight has the knack of portraying ordinary people coping the best they can with extraordinary circumstances. But Knight's voice -- inflected with wry humor, lingering regrets, and the occasional flash of unfounded optimism -- is distinctly his own. Each of these qualities is displayed in the opening story of the collection, "Now You See Her," in which a 36-year-old widowed veterinarian and his teenage son take turns spying on the beautiful new neighbor across the alleyway (a woman with the Brontëan name of Grace Poole, who appears to have "renounced clothing altogether"). But longing, lust, shame, and father-son rivalry soon converge, dashing any hopes of a more personal relationship. The haunting "Gerald's Monkey" finds the 16-year-old narrator, Ford, apprenticing in his uncle's shipyard, ostensibly to learn the family business "from the ground up" but more frequently pressed into service as personal gofer to two Vietnam-haunted welders, Wishbone and Gerald. Painfully aware that he can never share his companions' depth of experience, Ford bears witness as Gerald's single-minded desire for a pet spider monkey and Wishbone's inopportune chain smoking bring the story to an explosive conclusion. "A Bad Man, So Pretty" is a disturbing tale of two dramatically different brothers brought to a violent and unexpected manifestation of brotherly love. And in the concluding story, "Tenant," the plight of an orphaned German shepherd moves a college professor to try to reconcile the conflicting legacies of unconditional love and stony exclusion bequeathed by his recently deceased landlady.
Whereas Knight's short stories begin seductively and build to an irresistible climax, Divining Rod takes the opposite approach -- literally opening 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, knocking him flat, like he'd been shoved, and dead, the bullet passing through his heart and exiting at his left shoulder, trailing blood and tissue like the tail of a comet.
With one sentence, Knight generates sufficient momentum to power his novel through a modest 200 pages. Other authors have employed this technique with varying success -- Toni Morrison's Paradise comes to mind -- but the full impact of such initial confrontations is difficult to sustain for the length and breadth of a longer, more intricate novel. This is one of the most satisfying aspects of Knight's work: At an impossibly early stage in his career he has learned to exploit his material to the fullest, without exceeding the limits inherent in its form.
In a series of flashbacks alternating between Simon's first-person narrative and the third-person reminiscences of Sam and his young wife, Delia, Knight reveals the sequence of events that inexorably led to the mortal confrontation that sweltering Sunday afternoon in July.
Simon Bell was born and raised in Sherwood, Alabama, the son of a local tractor manufacturer. Both of his parents die within months of each other while he is away at college, and he spends the next seven years drifting from job to job, acquiring a law degree along the way. Finally, a long-overdue wake-up call (in the form of an ill-considered pass at a perky Jehovah's Witness) and a job offer from a Sherwood law firm encourage Simon to return to the family homestead.
He is astonished to learn that his new next-door neighbor, Delia Holladay, is not old Sam Holladay's daughter but his wife. When Delia asks to use his backyard pool, Simon falls into the voyeuristic routine of watching as she swims her laps. With the vague sense of losing control over his actions, he then secretly begins to follow Delia on her golfing excursions -- a fascination that continues for six weeks until she realizes that she is being stalked. But instead of arousing Delia's anger, disgust, or pity, Simon's attentions are accepted for the clumsy flattery they are. Delia convinces herself that she can manage an affair with Simon, keep her marriage "wholly separate...and still love her husband" -- but tragically, she considers neither the depth of Simon's emotional involvement nor her husband's determination to do "anything in his power to keep them from ever being apart."
Knight is a keen observer of intimate detail and a shrewd interpreter of his characters' motivations. When Sam wistfully tells Delia, "It takes a long time to accumulate the right stuff for a good Christmas tree," or Simon reflects that his relationships with women never survive past the "disappointments of desire," or that his mother is "tired-eyed and beautiful with sorrow," the reader feels an immediate sense of recognition: We know these people. They are our parents, our lovers, ourselves. The novel's supporting characters reinforce this familiarity as well as provide a sounding board for the novel's central themes. Betty Fowler, the sweetly addled (and occasionally foul-mouthed) widow who wanders the community golf course in search of her husband's buried gold, chastely mirrors Simon and Delia's urge to focus and channel their desire. Similarly, the magic implicit in the divining rod she flourishes is a potent symbol of the magic of love.
As Knight's story of fateful passion and betrayal comes full circle to its heartbreaking conclusion, the deadly logic of the novel's opening pistol shot is at last made clear. "None of us," Sam realizes, "will ever be happy again."