November 1999

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Divining Rod:
Picturing the Object You Seek

by Charlie Onion

Divining Rod
Michael Knight
196 pp.
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Divining Rod, Michael Knight's debut novel, opens quite suddenly--even breathlessly--with a horrific yet riveting scene: sixty-three-year-old Sam Holladay walks across his next-door neighbor's freshly mown lawn, presses the barrel of a snub-nosed .38 revolver to his neighbor's chest and fires. The neighbor, twenty-eight-year-old Simon Bell, promptly falls to the ground and dies. Holladay then quietly walks into Bell's house and calls the police. "Through the window above the sink," Knight writes, "Holladay could make out Simon Bell's body, just a shape in the grass, no more ominous or frightening than a dress shop mannequin." Holladay had bought the gun on his honeymoon to protect his young bride, Delia, against New Orleans street crime--little knowing, of course, that he'd ultimately use it to kill her lover.

Delia had been stage-managing a school play when Holladay first saw her "and went deaf for a moment" at the sight of her youth and beauty. Although he was old enough to be her grandfather, he had proposed marriage, and she--though he wasn't quite what she had imagined life would offer her--had readily accepted. After the honeymoon, they moved into Holladay's house and fell into pleasant patterns--riding into school together (Holladay taught history, Delia music), cooking together, staying home at night and watching movies together. Delia, it would seem, had nothing to complain about.

Indeed, Knight offers none of the standard, tired explanations--boring routines, lack of communication, etc.--to explain Delia's affair with her next-door neighbor.


She studied her husband around the house, watched him shaving for work, considered the way he brought a fork to his lips at dinner, looking for evidence of discontent in herself, but she couldn't find anything. She loved her husband, she was sure. He still stirred an affection in her and passion, comfortable and kindhearted though it might have been. But she could walk him to the door when he left for the college, watch his car turn the corner, then slip across the driveway, her heart already thumping in dangerous anticipation, with only an occasional fluttering of remorse. It was as if she were two separate women, capable of two separate sets of emotions. She imagined that she changed shape, like in the movies, just before Simon opened the door. When she passed a mirror in his house, she half-expected to see an unfamiliar reflection in the glass.


For his part, Bell, who lives alone in the house he inherited from his parents, isn't unaware of the moral transgression posed by the affair. He had, after all, grown up next door to Sam Holladay and even cut his grass occasionally as a teenager. (Knight adds a nice Freudian twist: Bell believes his mother may have had an affair when he was a child, and he wonders "if the man who had stolen my mother for a little while, assuming that there was such a man, was anything like me.") But he's lonely in the way that existentialists talk about the loneliness of souls that can't touch, and like many rather morbid individuals suffering existential angst, Bell decides the chance to bridge the gap between souls overrides moral codes. It's certainly not mere sex that drives the relationship: it's the chance to know yourself through understanding another person that brings them together. That mirror image in the passage quoted above is significant, I think, because so much of the book is taken up with this matter of finding your identity through external observation.

Knight has a strong eye as a writer (some of his imagery is breathtaking), and his mastery of a somewhat experimental form is astonishing, given his relative youth. Bell narrates many of the chapters himself (the others are kept in the third person, although we're able to hear both Delia and Holladay's thoughts), and the story is told out of sequence with a wonderful associative rhythm linking them together. By telling us up front Bell will be killed for his transgressions (the opening chapter is appropriately called "How It Ended"), Knight casts a sense of fatalism to his story. The novel itself, Knight suggests, is a 'divining rod' showing us "Tiny particles of intent, passing invisibly, delicately, from the rod into its bearer, leading him toward his intended destination."

But Divining Rod is no mere exercise in style. Knight shows great insight into his characters, and he puts his skills to good use by letting us feel the suddenness and unexpectedness with which his characters discover things about themselves. When Holladay meets Delia's mother forty years after promising himself never to marry--enough years to have forgotten an idle, youthful thought--it comes back to him suddenly:


Right at that moment, he thought of Mary Youngblood. Standing in the open doorway of Delia's mother's house, crickets ringing in the yard behind him like sleigh bells, he remembered the way her lips had felt against his hair and that she had forgotten her mitten and had been too embarrassed to retrieve it because she had ended things between them the next day. He remembered, as well, the decision he had made--the sort of decision that only a young man could make, sure of the future and foolish with conceit--never to love another woman as long as he lived. He smiled at Delia's mother and felt a sudden, sad surprise that he had kept his promise to himself for so long. He hadn't done it deliberately. He'd forgotten it, in fact, with other women, at other times.


It's our gaining this insight at the same moment Holladay does that makes Knight's work seem electric at times. Again and again, Knight turns things suddenly, exposing both the reader and his characters simultaneously to wonderful transformative moments. Even something as simple as a neighbor saying good night to Simon Bell is ripe with potential: "And he said, 'Good night, Simon. Sleep well,' his voice different all of a sudden, tender and settling, a voice accustomed to soothing nightmares." That we believe a man who had just been describing sex games can transform so suddenly (in a single sentence, no less) and suggest a soothing, paternal calm for Simon (a perpetually needy, lonely child) is a sign of how great Knight's skills are as a writer, and the intelligence he has in putting them to deep, thematic use.

Divining Rod is a fast, astonishingly intelligent novel, and Knight is certain to become an important voice in American fiction. Click here to find any book!


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