Books
1:58 pm
Mon September 6, 2010

The Typist by Michael Knight

Michael Knight of Mobile, Alabama is putting together a remarkably successful career, almost a model. He began with a volume of stories, Dogfight and Other Stories, and a novel, Divining Rod, both in 1998. There was then a second volume of stories, Goodnight, Nobody, in 2003 and a pair of novellas, The Holiday Season, in 2007. It is widely understood that the lead story in Goodnight, Nobody, entitled "Birdland," is being made into a feature film with Robert Duvall. Here's hoping.

Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio

Michael Knight of Mobile, Alabama is putting together a remarkably successful career, almost a model. He began with a volume of stories, Dogfight and Other Stories, and a novel, Divining Rod, both in 1998. There was then a second volume of stories, Goodnight, Nobody, in 2003 and a pair of novellas, The Holiday Season, in 2007. It is widely understood that the lead story in Goodnight, Nobody, entitled "Birdland," is being made into a feature film with Robert Duvall. Here's hoping.

These four previous volumes of fiction are mostly, as you might expect, set in the present in and around Mobile and the Alabama Gulf Coast. They are also in fictional lengths short, medium and long.

Now Knight has chosen the length which I think suits him best, the long story/short novel, and in what must have been a bold move, Knight has set The Typist in Tokyo, Japan, right after the end of WWII. Knight himself was born in 1969.

His protagonist, Francis Vancleave, is from Mobile, Alabama and is just a boy. Van's father is a tugboat captain who is away a lot. His mother, a secretary, to pass the time usefully, teaches Van to type. Like a good Alabamian he learns by typing out scripture, and becomes excellent. "The trick, she told me, was to forget about your hands."

Upon joining the Army in 1944, young Van is identified as a typing prodigy and sent to the secretarial pool in Brisbane, then Manila, then to MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo where, he tells us, "the story that I want to tell begins."

Van is bright, but young, inexperienced and provincial. Young Van observes and learns just enough to get by, when he is off duty. Japan seems real to the reader, seen through his intelligent though not preternaturally brilliant eyes, but Knight does not make the mistake of over-researching his novel and burying the reader in details of Japanese cuisine, language, parts of the kimono, weapons, religion, etc. etc. I was amused by the very American scene of Van attending a football game General MacArthur organizes using college players from all over the Pacific and held in Hiroshima, already historic and hallowed ground.

Van is a typist, not a poet, but from time to time Knight's prose shines through as in this description of the keyboard: "a 1942 Royal Super Speed, so black it negated light, round silver keys rising from the space bar in four tiers, 48 tiny platters perched on the fingertips of 48 tiny butlers, each letter offered up like something rare."

Life for the Japanese is mostly bleak. There is barely enough food, not enough shelter, and many girls are forced into varieties of prostitution. Van has himself married in haste just before leaving Mobile so, as he is a virtuous lad, he is more an observer than carnal participant, but he is inevitably drawn into the world of the Japanese girlfriends and would-be war brides. He also cannot help but know of the thriving black market all around him.

Through his job at the typing pool, Van learns it is young Arthur MacArthur's eighth birthday and on a whim, sends him a gift of some tin samurai soldiers. Soon he is assigned by the general, the most powerful person in Asia, to be the lonely boy's companion/ babysitter/playmate which is especially odd as MacArthur's son holds about the same rank in Japan as the son of Emperor Hirohito, only recently declared not divine.

This is not an action story, not a tale of amphibious landings on Pacific islands. There is some saddening violence, but the big explosions are over. This novel has the pacing of a Japanese tea ceremony, not a Hollywood action thriller. It is the story of a regular-sized human, Vancleave, who tells his story slowly, carefully, calmly and, because thoughtfully and quietly, believably.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on September 6, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.

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