And Other Stories
By Lewis Robinson
HarperCollins. 228 pp. $23.95
By Michael Knight
Atlantic Monthly. 160 pp. $23
If good writing is like a good suit -- durable, seamless and decidedly non-flashy -- then Michael Knight and Lewis Robinson are master tailors. Both are skilled at observing what makes people tick and what makes them trip, and both present singular dispatches from life's odd corners, polishing simple words until they shine like plain stones run through a rock tumbler.
All of the stories in Officer Friendly, Robinson's first book, center on Point Allison, a salt-blasted, hardscrabble lobstertrap hamlet on the Maine seacoast where the inhabitants are both very, very ordinary and somehow possessed of a laconic eccentricity -- and electricity -- that propels them into weird little epiphanies. Robinson treats the ordinary and the extraordinary in his fictional world with the same detached bemusement, whether he is chronicling a high school pep rally or telling the story of a man driving to work who finds an old friend ready to jump off a bridge.
Many of Robinson's tales are coming-of-age stories that transcend -- if not subvert -- the genre; no one ends up particularly wiser or even older, just different. In the title story, two boys who are shooting illegal bottle rockets get apprehended by Officer Friendly, a tubby cop who's more suited to making hopelessly square anti-drug presentations in the local schools than to chasing down two lithe teenagers on a snowy night. When things go badly for Officer Friendly, the boys are given the chance to help him, and Robinson strikes just the right note with their choice, somewhere between redemption and reality.
Time and again, Robinson's characters are hit with puzzling situations, minor forks in the road that somehow seem to make all the difference, and their decisions are amusing and satisfying. A young man invited to a party for the eminence grise of the Point Allison old-money crowd discovers that his role in the affair is to shoot the elderly birthday boy. In "The Diver," Peter, a yuppie weekend boater with a hopelessly bollixed outboard motor, is forced to accept help from a vaguely menacing stranger, whose teasing attitude teeters between annoying and malicious. As Peter tries to determine whether the diver is truly dangerous or just mocking his comfortable life -- and to decide just what he should do about it, anyway -- his choice begins to have less to do with his family's safety and more to do with his sense of manhood. Throughout, Robinson writes with the laidback lope of a guy playing streetcorner basketball, shooting layup after layup and making it look easy.
All of his sly charm is on full display in "Puckheads," the tale of two high-school hockey players who, suspended for fighting, are enrolled in the school drama club as punishment. Robinson finds depths in his puckheads that the school officials ignore; after the initial insult of giving up slap shots for acting exercises, the boys apply the same scrappy determination to the school production of "Oliver!" that they did to their face-offs, and show Point Allison what you get when you combine Method acting with hockey training.
Where Robinson seems content to unearth the stories behind every spruce tree in Point Allison, Michael Knight has a more restless imagination. He is the author of one novel (Divining Rod) and one short-story collection (Dogfight and Other Stories), and the stories collected in Goodnight, Nobody are set in multiple locales -- from rundown Elbow, Ala., to a Civil War battlefield, from a dreary emergency room to a suburban living room. When Knight's imagination works, it works marvelously, as in the cunningly named "Ellen's Book," the tale of a sad-sack failed writer whose wife has moved back home with her parents. "Every day, my wife and her mother drive down from the house in Ashland Place and eat lunch in Bienville Square," says Keith, the narrator. "And every day, I steal away from work and spy on them from the window of the drugstore across the street." But Keith is not stalking them, he assures the reader; he's just gathering material for a book he's writing about his wife, and if that takes him outside her bedroom window in the middle of the night -- well, it's all for art. Reflecting on the day she left, he says, "Had I only known that an hour later she would be packing, an hour after that she would be gone, I would have penciled myself in a better man."
Knight's most ambitious story, "Killing Stonewall Jackson," is a staccato report from a group of muddy Confederates, cold, miserable and dying, taking both support from and umbrage at the shining image of their leader, saving a lock of hair from his comb like a relic. But perhaps Knight's best is his shortest, a three-page jewel called "The Mesmerist," in which an itinerant hypnotist meets a young lovely on a train and proceeds to -- quite literally -- make her his wife, only to discover that happy endings require a bit of ongoing maintenance.
Would that all of Goodnight, Nobody were that incisive and that original. "The End of Everything" has a nifty premise -- Knight begins by recounting a hoary urban legend and then goes on to imagine what might have happened next -- but his explication isn't as interesting as the legend itself. His major misstep here is "Mitchell's Girls," a slice of suburban Grand Guignol in which the title character's back goes out while he's vacuuming, leaving him prone on the carpet where he is ignored and abused by his toddler and his stepdaughter. Sociopathic teenagers, foul-mouthed toddlers: We've seen this diseased family-tree stuff before in A.M. Homes's stories and an SUV-ful of movies such as "American Beauty"; in Knight's hands, it just feels forced and stale.
Officer Friendly leaves you wanting more about Port Allison, and Robinson's easy style indicates that he can keep telling stories as long as someone wants to read them, scoring one two-pointer after another. Goodnight, Nobody is both more ambitious and less successful. Knight misses a few of his shots, but the ones he makes are nothing but net. *
Kevin Allman is the editor of the magazine WHERE New Orleans.