Home For the Holidays

Author Michael Knight takes the merry out of Christmas and the happy out of New Year's.

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and on to New Year's: What better time for families to come together? Or is it to come apart quietly at the seams? A bit of both to judge from Michael Knight's The Holiday Season (Grove Press), which combines two novellas: One itself is entitled The Holiday Season; the other is called Love at the End of the Year. First, though, a word about Michael Knight.

He's a Southerner born, bred, and educated — home state: Alabama; schooling: Hampden-Sydney College, the University of Southern Mississippi, and the University of Virginia. In 2005, he was named John and Renee Grisham Emerging Southern Writer at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Today, he heads the creative-writing program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Knight's known for his Southern-set novel (Divining Rod) and two collections of short stories (Dogfight: And Other Stories; Goodnight, Nobody). He's known too for winning awards, including one from the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 1999.

So, how much more Southern can an author get? Depends on what you mean by "Southern author."

In an interview for "Inside Ole Miss," Tom Franklin, writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi, called Knight a non-Southern Southern writer — meaning, in Franklin's words, "he's someone who can get at the mysteries of human nature without using trailers, shotguns, rotgut, or dead mules."

True enough. In The Holiday Season, there's not a trailer or shotgun in sight. (Though a pistol does get fired for fun.) Same with rotgut. (Knight's characters are a cut above and go for scotch, gin and tonic, and chardonnay.) Dead mules? Not a one. This is the white-collar New South, upper-middle-class division. But the mysteries of human nature . . . they're as old as the hills.

Take the Posey men in The Holiday Season. Jeff lives in Mobile, Alabama, in a house that's seen better days. Jeff's seen better days too. Onetime lawyer, longtime city councilman, now he's retired — living alone after his wife died and observing the cocktail hour most any hour of the day. He's got a son, Ted, age 37, an attorney living the good life with his wife and twin girls just across the bay in Point Clear. And he's got an unmarried son, Frank, age 33, who's never made a name for himself at all — unless you count that name among the players in a traveling Shakespeare company. (The audience: uncomprehending high-school students.)

What's the big deal in The Holiday Season? Nothing earth-shattering. Just Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas, followed by a new year in the life of Frank Posey, who's the one narrating this tale, a winter's tale that even Frank has to admit has "no clear resolution and likely never would."

Missed connections between father and sons. Missed opportunities between brother and brother. A mourned wife and mother. Add those to the friction when this nuclear family of three can't even see eye-to-eye on where to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sounds petty? It is. True to life? It is, with Knight getting every complicating detail down simply and just right.

How's this, though, for complicated? In Love at the End of the Year, Katie and Hugh Butter are on their way to Paul and Haley Marchand's New Year's Eve party when Katie calmly announces to Hugh that she's leaving him. Meanwhile, their 12-year-old son Evan is holed up in his room watching pornography on his computer, but he's also thinking of his classmate, Lulu Fountain. Evan's sister, Nicole, who is 8, sits watching TV with her sitter, Miss Anita, while Miss Anita considers opening another miniature bottle of Peppermint Schnapps. (It is New Year's Eve.)

Lulu, for her part, has just left her mother, Stella Fountain, a note informing her that Lulu has run away from home, but she fails to add that she's running into the arms of Ike Tiptoe, her 17-year-old boyfriend. Boyd, Stella's former husband, for his part, runs right over to Stella's to see what can be done, even though he has a blind date with a woman named Esmerelda Daza, a real knockout who's meeting Boyd at the Marchands'.

To make matters worse, Stella is being evicted from her apartment, because she mistakenly let a burglar into the building. That burglar robbed Stella's neighbor, a college professor named Urqhardt, who's in love with an undergraduate named Kevin. They, Urqhardt and Kevin, are due at the Marchands' party too. Who isn't? Roland Tiptoe, Ike's father, who, in return for showing Stella where Lulu might be found, talks Boyd into letting him drive Boyd's new Mercedes. This, after Lulu has decided not to throw herself from the second-story window of an unfinished house in an unfinished subdivision called Illumination Meadows.

Complicated? Yes. Confusing? Again yes, despite Michael Knight's straightforward storytelling. But no more confusing than the love lives and family lives of you and yours, be it any time of the year.

What's eating at Knight's characters? What's driving them to question what they mean to do and wind up not doing? What's behind Katie Butter's "nameless trepidation"? What does Lulu Fountain mean when she concludes that nothing is "real"? And why does Frank Posey wake up mornings feeling "mislaid"?

No telling. Like Illumination Meadows, it's all unfinished business. One thing, though, is clear: the case of the couple in The Holiday Season who have decorated their front yard with a miniature Graceland — Elvis doll inside in sequined jumpsuit, the Jungle Room, Cadillac out front, the works. Jeff Posey calls it "perfect." Frank Posey doesn't know what to think.

But turns out, things aren't so perfect. By Christmas Day, in place of a model Graceland, there's a for-sale sign in that couple's front yard. The husband has been busted for writing bad checks. The wife's returned to Memphis, her home town.

This is the news that Jeff Posey wants his son Frank to know on Christmas morning. It follows in response to what Ted wants his father to know but can't bring himself to say: In the words of Frank, "He said to tell you Merry Christmas and he loves you."

Such a disconnection between father and son — going on now for years, likely to continue for who knows how many more: File it, from a non-Southern Southern writer, under "human mysteries."

Shelf Life

Friends or family got you down this holiday season? Let Christmas go to the dogs with Memphis photographer Jack Kenner's handsome book of black-and-white canine portraits, Dogs I've Nosed (self-published). The bond between man and pooch: Cybill Shepherd knows it too. Just read her fine words on her friend Jack Kenner in the book's Preface. Then see Shepherd piled up with her two German shepherds, Kim and Bella.

But the stars here, front and center, are the dogs — from a lovable-looking pug named Frodun's Skedaddle "Simba" (son of Ch. Ivanwold's About Face and Ch. Cotswold LaBounce of Frodun) to the lowliest born of household pets. "Pets," though, can't be the right word. "Family member" is more like it, based on the heartfelt remarks of the owners (most or all of them Memphians?) printed in these pages.

I happen to have a soft spot for boxers, so it's good to see Caleb and Joshua, Paige and Marshall, Lacey and Ginger, Layla, and Buster looking so solidly boxer-ish here. There's a whole host of other breeds, though, with personalities to match: from Max, with his chin-up, noble bearing; to Bukka, front paws planted on the floor, hindquarters squarely on a couch; to Henry, an object lesson in canine symmetry; to Murphy and Winston (and a partial shot of their mistress), in the middle of kitchen duty. Leave it, however, to the full family portrait of Samson and Polly with Curtis and Bonny to really bring matters home. As Bonny good-naturedly writes: "Our house has not been clean since January 2004."

That's when Bonny and Curtis brought Samson home from the Memphis Animal Shelter. Polly was an Overton Park stray. Both of them slobber, and both of them shed. It's been a messy, happy house ever since.

"Did we rescue them, or did they rescue us?" Bonny writes of Samson and Polly. The answer's obvious. The proof's in the photo and all of Jack Kenner's wonderful work in Dogs I've Nosed

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