January 19, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
DOGFIGHT AND OTHER STORIES
Plume, 1998, $11.95.
Mobile native Michael Knight has produced a collection of stories that form an honest and eloquent elegy for the twentieth century. Here are the walking wounded and the nearly dead souls trying to make sense of their relationships or lack of them in places that are temporary, fragmented and as shaky as the relationships of the characters. The people and the settings seem to be floating in space on terrains that have lost their centers of gravity.
These characters are lonely and alienated, "homesick at home," but they keep reaching for love and connections, like Shiloh the dog who has lost his owner and who is lost in grief and longing for her in the last story, "Tenants," but who becomes animated by the bats that fly over the property surrounding her former home: "Shiloh's head snapped up at the sound of them, their chirping, their fluttering wings. I wondered if it was true that he remembered everything about Mrs. Cunningham, even what it was that made him love her... Shiloh rose up on his hind legs, still snapping, reaching higher, swatting with his paws, and for an instant, with Shiloh standing precariously and the bats whirling above him, it was as if they were performing an ancient ritual dance, as old and as candid as time. That I would remember. Shiloh dancing with the bats in the leathery twilight. I would make it mine." Dancing without making contact, connections without love or permanence, are already the property of this narrator, who admits, "...I have always had trouble getting involved. In anything." He is too afraid of involvement to work as a newspaper reporter because he "...couldn't get over the feeling that my work...was an invasion of privacy."
The opening story is an Oedipal conflict between father and son voyeurs, voyeurism being one of the ways human beings can feel without making physical contact with another. The place of the dog in this story is to bring the naked neighbor, a young woman who seems to have "renounced clothing altogether," to the office of the father, a veterinarian, with her ailing dog. The son insists on going to meet the neighbor, Grace. The three are finally face to face, and the narrator realizes that his voyeurism has ruined the possibility of any real connection between them. Their ritual dance is over.
The title story, "Dogfight," stars an Irish setter, Hi John, who bravely fends off a vicious attack by a Great Dane, and in doing so shakes his owner out of an emotional coma and brings him back to life. The dog's passion stirs the latent passion and emotion in his owner and leads him back to Maggie, his ex- wife and devoted friend. Their mutual concern for Hi John is the magnet that draws them back together, but the animal violence is the alarm that wakes his owner.
"Gerald's Monkey" and "Sleeping with My Dog" continue the animal theme. Animals are the instructors, showing the truth, lighting the way. Gerald is a shipyard worker who wants a monkey for a pet, and this simple desire teaches the shipyard owner's nephew who tells the story that Gerald is human, not just a tool for the machine that produces the family fortune. While the relationship between Gerald, Wishbone, and Ford, the narrator, is being dramatized, the reader learns of Ford's relationship with his sister, Virginia, and their mutual bullying is as brutish as Wishbone's bullying of the rich white boy, the owner's nephew. Virginia "spent her summer days reading by the pool, her nights out with one boy or another." Ford's summer is "a family tradition. Learn the value of a dollar by working hard for it, that sort of thing. I'd drag myself home in the evenings, caked with filth, feeling drained empty, like I'd spent the day donating blood, and there my sister would be, fresh and blond and lovely, stretched languorously on the couch in front of the television." His animosity toward Virginia is mirrored by Wishbone's animosity toward him, the poor hating the rich and men hating women.
"Sleeping with My Dog" features another woman who stirs a man's animosity, but the dog he gave her has to instruct him before he realizes that what "spooked" the dog, suspicion, has also spooked him. In "Amelia Earhart's Coat," a little girl's loneliness and alienation lead to suspicions that almost end in tragedy, just as Earhart's flight does. In "Poker" a dog, cards and friends save a man going through a divorce. "A Bad Man, So Pretty," continues the description of how many ways families can be fractured, but in this case they hang together, even if they are simply acting parts in a play, not really connecting. After a younger brother has taken advantage of his bad older brother's injured hands to give him a brutal beating that leads to the emergency room, the aftermath delivers the meaning of the story: "Dad made an effort at anger, puffing himself up and doing some shouting, like he knew how he was supposed to feel but couldn't quite get it right."
"The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes" is different from the other stories because the tragedy here is the result of an accident. A man has to decide how to live with a crippled woman he cannot make love to or how to leave her. He is living in limbo, waiting. "The air was full of choices, and it was only a matter of time before I picked the one that I could live with."
"Sundays" dramatizes loneliness and longing in the age of single mothers. Ironically, the loneliest of the lonely is not a single mother but a single childless man who teaches Latin and reflects on what Solon told Croesus about happiness and on how the message must have alarmed Croesus. Wiley ends a disappointing evening with the daughter of the woman he loves or maybe just wants to love in his arms, feeling a need to protect the child, to instruct her about love, and to explain Solon's message, but instead he simply says, "Just sleep." He doesn't want her to know the meaning. Not yet.
These stories by a seer with the expertise to present his visions in clear and careful mosaics put together with meaningful human truths are worth reading again and again. Knight's voice is fresh and original, but his insight into human dilemmas is as wise as Solon's.