Mellow scenes from a multitude of lives in repose.
Some writers, perhaps as a defense, write about not much in particular: they don’t have much of anything to say and so retreat to the safety of the meaningless short story, with no end, no beginning and very little of substance in between. Knight could be mistaken for one of these at first, as his characters tend to be trivial and spend their lives idly, but from the first pages of this second collection (after Dogfight, 1998), it’s clear that he is simply a great writer who doesn’t have anything to prove. In the glorious “Birdland,” he imagines the tiny burg of Elbow, Arkansas, where the narrator lives in his grandmother’s house, whiling away the days between Alabama football games, which she watches with the town’s entire population on the TV in the general store. The narrator romances The Blonde, a Yankee ornithologist who’s in town to study the parrots from New England that winter in Elbow and who is endlessly fascinated by the southern time warp she calls home. By the end, the two are fully in love and gloriously relaxed: “My life purls drowsily out behind me like water. Parrots preen invisibly in the dark.” In the misfit epic “Ellen’s Book,” another low-expectation narrator, Keith, is in love, but unrequited. His wife, Ellen, has left him after their child was still-born, and now he stalks her from afar, developing a strange camaraderie with her father, Wade, who treats Keith with a mixture of contempt and affection. Keith’s a writer, but the only story he ever published was one that Ellen rewrote and he submitted by mistake: “I wanted her to know that half a talent was the worst thing in the world. That sort of ordinary can’t help but break your heart.”
With an ability to tweeze meaning from the effluvia of the everyday, Knight spins magic out of nothing much. Tremendous.