February 23, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
Dutton, 1998, $23.95.
Michael Knight’s first novel takes its title from a poem by Abraham Cowley: “To walk in ruins, like vain ghosts, we love,/ And with fond divining wands/ We search among the dead/ For treasure buried/ While the liberal earth does hold/ So many virgin mines of undiscovered gold.” These six lines explain the strange actions of the ordinary people in this novel set in an ordinary town in lower Alabama. Three characters from a tragic triangle in a story that ends with a murder, and it is “among the dead,” the past, that the catalyst for the action can be found. These three characters seem helpless to step out of the fatal path they take. Their fate is in the hands of the parents of the two adulterers and the first love of the betrayed husband who murders his wife’s lover.
The novel opens with a blunt account of its dramatic end: “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.” Later in the novel the reason for the gun emerges. Sam had bought it on his honeymoon the year before because he had wanted to protect his wife in New Orleans after an encounter with a mugger.
Simon Bell is resurrected after the first brief chapter to tell his own story, which begins with “My father...,” a good opening for an Oedipus plot in reverse. The man who kills Simon Bell is a father figure fighting to save his very young wife/daughter from the younger man /son. Simon’s memories of his father are not exactly fond. Although Simon Sr. appeared to love his son and his much younger wife, his son’s description of him is anything but that of a lovable man. He was a ruthless and successful businessman, running a factory by intimidating his workers. He is such a formidable figure in his son’s eyes that “All of the people around him seemed unnecessary.” A telling revelation is Simon’s reaction to his father’s sudden death: he does not and cannot grieve for his father and fears that he will be found out in his fake sorrow. Simon loses his mother to an accidental drowning in the Gulf of Mexico six months later. Some believe that her death is a suicide, but Simon does not think so. He does remember that she was an exceptionally strong swimmer, but insists, “No one died from loneliness or a broken heart anymore.”
Simon’s first meeting with Delia Holladay follows the account of his mother’s death. Delia will be the lesson for Simon that people do die “from loneliness or a broken heart anymore.” Like his mother, she is the much younger wife of an older man, Sam, the man whose own broken heart will kill Simon. Simon’s affair with Delia develops rapidly. Soon, he is hopelessly in love with her, but she has no intention of leaving Sam. She loves Sam too, the fatherly husband who is no doubt the subconscious substitute for the father she lost.
The past lives of the parents become part of the affair, particularly the affair Simon’s mother may or may not have had at some point in his childhood. Simon is never certain about his mother’s betrayal, but Delia has no doubts, for she now understands how a woman can love one man and betray him with another because he makes the world appear to be a different place. Simon and Delia “search among the dead” for “treasure,” for knowledge and understanding of his mother’s temporary absence and her father’s disappearance. On the eve of the first wedding anniversary of Sam and Delia, Simon and Sam meet in a convenience store late at night, where Sam is looking for a present for Delia. Sam is distressed because he has forgotten his first anniversary, and Simon is distressed at encountering Sam and discussing Delia’s gift with him. Simon remembers, “And I wondered if the man who had stolen my mother for a little while, assuming that there was such a man, was anything like me.”
Simon and Delia seem to be trying to understand and forgive their parents in their own betrayal of Sam. Maybe they feel that repeating the betrayals of their parents is a way to expiate the sins of the parents. Knight’s geometric plot is too clear for readers to read this novel as a lust and murder plot.
The geometric patterns of families past are embellished with scenes from other lives in other plots in this small town. The weather is steamy, and the distractions limited to the Country Club and its golf course, recreational meccas that do not succeed in relieving the boredom of the members. Betty Fowler is the owner of the divining rod that she uses to seek the treasure that her husband told her was buried on the golf course. Betty and Simon become friends; she wants to will him her gold and she asks for and gets instructions on how to swear from Simon. And it is Betty Fowler who claims Simon’s body after it has lain in the morgue for a week. No one has been found who will claim Simon’s remains until Betty inquires about his funeral service.
Mrs. Fowler and Simon’s neighbor, Bob Robinson, are the only mourners at the service. Betty Fowler’s “chest ached at the thought that Simon could have been in love with another woman....She wanted to ask how it was possible for a man to live his life in such a way that the only people to mourn his passing were an old woman and a Yankee from Indiana....She was too old to be in love....She was too old for heartbreak and disappointment, too wise to give her heart, even the smallest part of it, a second time.”
She takes up where Sam’s grief stops. “It was as if she herself had been betrayed.” She ends the novel still seeking gold with her divining rod, seeking something she misses and calling it gold.