Don Noble
2:11 pm
Mon August 25, 2003

Goodnight, Nobody

Goodnight, Nobody follows the novel Divining Rod and the story collection Dogfight and Other Stories. Knight, originally from Mobile and now at the University of Tennessee, is building himself an impressive career.

Goodnight, Nobody

The first story in Michael Knight?s new collection, Goodnight, Nobody, is entitled ?Birdland.? Although writers love all their stories equally, the way mothers say they love their children, I think he likes this one best. Anyway, I do.

?Birdland,? originally published in the New Yorker, is set mainly in Elbow, Alabama, a little town on the Black Warrior River, forty miles south of Tuscaloosa, a town with fewer than a dozen voters. Elbow would be without interest to anyone, except for an ornithological oddity.

Over a hundred years ago an eccentric millionaire named Archibald, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, collected and then, one summer a few days before his death, released into freedom a dozen African parrots. Rather than freeze to death, the parrots migrated in September and now the flock, much larger, winters in otherwise dull, even monochromatic, Elbow, Alabama.

A beautiful young blond ornithologist from up north has come to Elbow to study the parrots, and fallen in love with a local young man, a perfectly slothful fellow with a classical education who lives in an inherited old house and carves parrot figurines to earn spending money. He loves ?The Blond,? as she is called, and proposes marriage regularly, to which she regularly answers, I can?t live here the rest of my life.?

In Elbow, Alabama, the entire population is utterly obsessed with Crimson Tide football and gathers at the general store, at the only television in town, to watch the games and reminisce about Bama?s glory days. The parrots in the trees call out ?catch the ball,? ?stick him like a man,? and ?run, run.? This is a charming love story with a satisfyingly happy ending, and is only one of several love stories in this volume.

A stranger and mildly sinister little love story is ?The Mesmerist,? originally published in Esquire. Moody, a professional mesmerist?one with the power to hypnotize, meets a pretty girl named Penelope on a train from New York to New Orleans. He falls in love with her, mesmerizes her, and basically abducts her to Cleveland, Ohio, where they will live ?happily ever after.? He even hypnotizes a private detective who comes looking for her. An odd story and a little chilling.

The final story of the nine, ?Blackout,? is a comedy set in Mobile during a power blackout. This is the tale of Porter and Franny Caldwell, who love each other and are trying to have a baby. Their next-door neighbors Rhonda and Wyatt are newcomers and Rhonda hates Alabama, resents Wyatt for brining her here, and is planning her return to Texas.

?What?s so great about Texas?? Franny asks sensibly. Rhonda replies, bizarrely, ?You?ve never been to Texas? . . . Oh, honey, everything good in this world comes from Texas.? ?Like what?? ?Well, there?s barbecue and oil and country music. There?s Tom Landry and Morton Salt.? That?s Rhonda?s answer and, as far as I?m concerned, enough said. Obviously, a paradise. This story dissolves into farce of the best kind.

Not all the stories are humorous or, of course, entirely successful. ?Killing Stonewall Jackson? has a whiff of Barry Hannah about it?a kind of mild surrealism, and is not Knight at his best. ?Ellen?s Book? is a bit of metafiction in the vein of John Barth in The Floating Opera and again seems contrived. Knight is strongest, I think, when he is realistic?taking liberties, of course, and with the parrots?and whimsical.

Goodnight, Nobody follows the novel Divining Rod and the story collection Dogfight and Other Stories. Knight, originally from Mobile and now at the University of Tennessee, is building himself an impressive career.

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