The characters in Michael Knight’s linked story collection, Eveningland, live in the finer precincts of Mobile, Alabama, or else across the bay in blithe Fairhope. They are, or descend from, doctors or lawyers or maritime executives—the gentry, as was said in olden times. Their houses have long windows and plantation shutters and hired hands to keep the shrubbery in check. They have good Scotch and good dogs. When cancer strikes, they put their faith and funds in “Sloan Kettering, Johns Hopkins, MD Anderson, names of hospitals like the board of directors for some conglomerate of suffering.” When passion strikes, and one of them is rash enough to take up arms, he equips himself with a side-by-side 12-gauge with a black walnut stock and engraved plates. But such fits of unruly passion, in these stories as in life, aren’t commonplace. More often flows a wistful breeze of contentment: “The sky was clear. The clouds were white. The air reeked of old bricks and cut grass and nostalgia. Everything as it should be.”
But won’t be for long; we come to understand that what links these stories isn’t the cursory connections that characters in one tale have with those in another—on occasion they’ll hop over to another story for a cocktail—nor is it Knight’s calibrated sociological rendering, his narrative taxonomy of this Gulf Coast tribe. What binds this collection instead, and what ultimately imbues Eveningland with novelistic force, is the growing, smudgy presence of a cloud on the horizon, in some cases both literal and figurative, toward which every story tilts. Read individually, some of the stories can feel airy, static, in a few cases shorn of a satisfying conclusion; taken together, however, they exert a tremendous and accretive pressure as those endings—not so much withheld as postponed—take devastating shape in the reader’s mind.
In the opening story, “Water and Oil,” a seventeen-year-old boy patrols the waters of Mobile Bay, on guard against heartbreaking signs of oil stealing in from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, but, when he falls for the crooked-teethed, barefoot girl pumping gas at the marina, stumbles into another form of heartbreak. A burglar, in “Smash and Grab,” the collection’s most antic tale, awakens to find that he had been knocked unconscious with a toilet lid and then ensnared in a teenage girl’s ad-lib plot to exact revenge upon her father. The sovereign in “The King of Dauphin Island” goes by the name of Marcus Weems, sixty-eight years old and the sixth-richest man in Alabama; he reacts to his wife’s death from cancer by trying to buy up the entirety of Dauphin as a personal fortress of solitude.
But the bookends, for this reader, are “Jubilee” and “Landfall.” In some ways the stories could not be more unalike: the latter a novella-length white-knuckle account of a fictional hurricane, and the former almost hypnotically uneventful. “Jubilee” follows a married couple, thus far unbruised by life, as they prepare for a birthday party. Plotwise, it’s the kind of not-quite-a-story Frederick Barthelme might write, except beneath Barthelme’s laconic dialogue would lurk desperate disappointment, muffled angst. Here there is little, though you keep awaiting its appearance. “Everything looks great,” the husband tells his wife. “Just really great.” Yet this isn’t irony; everything does look great to him, even at story’s end. It’s only later, after “Landfall,” that we realize how fragile is their happiness, how tenuous their blessings.
Knight, who grew up in Mobile, is a fastidiously neutral observer of his characters; he leverages no moral strain on them, granting them free will. His prose is compressed and supple, with a Cheever-esque sensitivity to texture and light and every so often a lovely flourish, as when the boy in “Water and Oil” regards the paper mills and chemical plants across the bay, exhaling fingers of blue smoke, as “machines for making clouds.” The portrait Knight paints—as the narrator of “Water and Oil” tells us—is of “light shattering on the bay, clouds racing past like time itself,” with “each of us, every minute, a little closer to the end, not unhappy but nagged sometimes by the unspeakable misgivings of contentment.” And mostly unaware, as well, of how delicate and vulnerable that contentment can be, of how suddenly the barometer can plummet.