(New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017)
Built on an in-depth exploration of commonplace experiences, Michael Knight’s short story collection Eveningland explores the stages of a linear lifespan of its various fictional residents in Mobile Bay, Alabama. While guiding readers from stories of adolescence and middle age through to natural death, Knight’s stories simultaneously study the tiniest details of everyday experience while also exploring the grand scheme of the human lifetime. Through Knight’s precise and thorough exploration of character, even the smallest of moments – such as a couple preparing dinner or a teacher planning an art lesson – manage to speak broadly to internal conflicts and complex relationships.
In order to maintain a sense of tension within these quiet moments, Knight employs a theme of captivity throughout the collection. Whether literal or figurative, created by the residents of Mobile Bay or by environmental forces, each story elicits the sensation of walls closing in to slowly squeeze the characters within a trapped space. For instance, a scene in “Landslide” that focuses on sisters Kathleen and Lucy eating ice cream with their Aunt Nora serves to demonstrate the sisters’ complex relationship and Nora’s motherly instincts, but is also riddled with tension as the reader is aware of a deadly hurricane moving towards the home. Similarly, Knight’s exploration of marriage and manhood bubbles with stress as Isaac Yates holds his wife’s lover hostage in “Grand Old Party.” Through this sense of impending devastation, Knight creates space for his detail-oriented, exploratory writing while still maintaining movement and clear narrative arcs in his stories.
In what would appear to be a final crossroads, the entire cast of Eveningland gathers for a party in “Jubilee.” However, the piece appears only halfway through the collection. The story – which explores a well-worn and somewhat exhausted, although comfortable marriage – ends with the line “it’s far too late…they must stay this course to the end.” This refers not only to the party that Dean and Kendra view apprehensively, or to the domestic, suburban lifestyle that has offered the couple all it ever can. Because it appears at the midpoint of the collection, “Jubilee” also refers to the life and heritage of Mobile Bay; the stories that follow “Jubilee” explore old age and death in the community. Knight pushes past what appears to be an organic ending to discover what lies even further, simultaneously revealing the linear structure of his collection.
This structure leads the reader through a full lifetime at Mobile Bay, from adolescence to last breath. Although the first story, “Water and Oil,” is told through an adult point of view, it focuses mainly on the first love of a character referred to as “the boy,” emphasizing his innocent and youth. “Smash and Grab” explores the mingled sadistic and philanthropic desires of teenager Daphne, and is shortly followed by art teacher Hadley’s quarter-life crisis in “Our Lady of Roses.” Knight then transitions into middle age with “Jubilee” and “Grand Old Party,” exploring the intricacies and complications of well-worn marriages, before guiding the reader into old age with Martin’s controversial senility in “King of Dauphin Island” and – ultimately – the last moments of the journey, reflecting back during life’s final moments in “Landfall.”
This journey is seamless and organic; while each story highlights a particular character and, therefore, stage of life, the cast is diverse and mingled in a way that prevents the narrative focus from appearing contrived or theme-mongering. The collection almost functions as a novel, with each story leading the reader through a linear passage of time; for example, just as Hadley’s parents were split in “Our Lady of Roses,” they appear so later in “Jubilee,” and while the guests are “laughing at something A.B. Ransom has just said,” A.B. eventually passes away by the final story. By structuring the collection this way, Knight once again draws emphasis to the lifespan of Mobile Bay’s residents. Eveningland is focused not only on the smaller moments that build a character’s day or week, but also how these moments build upon each other to paint a full picture of a lifetime at Mobile Bay.
Ultimately, the collection is a love letter to Mobile Bay. Through structuring the collection around the progression of a lifespan at Mobile Bay, Knight captures the heart of the land through a lifetime’s worth of the intimate community’s experiences.
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Briana McDonald’s fiction has appeared in Rozyln: Short Fiction by Women Writers, Marathon Literary Review, and The Stonecoast Review. She is an Associate Online Editor and a prose reader at The Literary Review.