Men are like dogs: equal parts nobility and stupidity. A dog's loyalty is divided between its master and the natural instinct to fight, breed, and dig holes in the yard. Like Canis familiaris, the men in Michael Knight's new short-story collection, Dogfight, are torn between what they should do and the petty, ridiculous things they actually do.
At 28, Michael Knight is a mere pup himself. Nevertheless, he's made a grand literary entrance, winning Playboy's 1996 college fiction contest, and publishing both Dogfight and a novel, Divining Rod (Dutton), within a few months. It's hard to begrudge him his success, given the graceful simplicity of Dogfight. Wandering through bedrooms and backyard barbecues, these 10 wry tales explore the small tragedies that bind friends and neighbors, men and women, guys and their dogs.
In the title story, a canine rumble starts a neighborhood war. While the losing man and his dog are recuperating, the winner starts sniffing around his neighbor's wife. Subtly, Knight builds the parallel between man and man's best friend: a kinship of lust and violence that ultimately leads the two neighbors into a snarling confrontation of their own.
Though dogfights at the end of the cul-de-sac may seem like trivial matter to build a book around, Knight has a knack for finding the deeper significance of everyday discord. In "Now You See Her," a veterinarian and his pubescent son share a voyeuristic fascination with the amateur nudist next door. Separated as much from each other as they are from the mysterious woman they watch, father and son continue in frustrated isolation, building, it appears, toward an old-fashioned Oedipal confrontation. Knight resists the temptation to resolve things cleanly, however. When the denouement comes, it's a sad, silly ending that leaves the vet and his sire pretty much where they began. Like all the men in Dogfight, they've been running in circles, nipping at their own tails.
Though he hails from Alabama, Knight doesn't rely on phony regional affectation for texture. Neither does he let the wistful epiphanies of his characters weigh down his prose with pathos. It's the simple familiarity of the people in Dogfight that gives these stories substance. The characters may act like dogs at times, digging holes they can't fill and rolling around where they shouldn't, but they're also endearingly human. In "Sleeping with My Dog," a mosaic artist responds to his girlfriend's wandering eye by inviting a stray black lab into their bed. Even as his relationship dissolves, he finds solace in the affection of his dog. With lilting cadence, Knight juxtaposes the unspoken sadness between man and woman and the perfect symbiosis between man and mutt. Even for hounds, it seems, there's room for redemption.
Michael Knight is not the only young writer to emerge from the glossy pages of Playboy, an institution whose literary ventures apparently extend well beyond the letters T and A. Although they share a common background, Knight and Clark typify the different flavors of Playboy's fiction (no, not blonde and brunette). On one side, there's the bittersweet irony of Dogfight. On the other, there's the corrosive satire of Joseph Clark, whose hypnotic debut collection, Jungle Wedding, turns backyard barbecues into bonfires.
Clark's characters are less animal than automaton. Rather than finding their motivation in the natural instincts to fuck and fight, they're swept along by circumstances too weird to control. There's the drug-addled tourist who's shanghaied by Euro-trash pirates, the set director who must build a life-size mountain for a musical about Mt. Everest, and the estranged couple who are caught in an Old Testament-style flood and are forced to consider rebuilding society with only plastic forks and Cheez Whiz. Alternating between allegory and absurdity, the 13 surreal tales in Jungle Wedding explore the premillennial anxiety of Clark's curious cast.
It's not surprising that Clark would write about American psychosis. After all, he was in the same college writing workshop as Bret Easton Ellis. Before that, though, Clark was a sculptor, an enlisted man in the Air Force, an orange picker in Florida, and, most unusual, a carny. His varied experience, particularly his time with the circus folk, seems to have influenced Jungle Wedding. There's certainly something carnivalesque about the author's mélange of odd people and bizarre situations.
In the title story, for instance, a rich socialite hires a cynical indie filmmaker to document her New Age wedding ceremony in a sweltering Third World jungle. Everything is going fine until the director takes a hit of the Kool Aid. Quickly, the innocuous New Age drollness degenerates into a jungle orgy of Dionysian proportions. Reality and fiction begin to blend in the protagonist's mind. "Tripping on liquid godhead," the disoriented auteur muses, "I'm beginning to think of myself in the third person, no longer someone making a film, but someone in a film that's veering out of control."
The relationship between voyeur and subject is also at the heart of "Public Burning." A bit like The Truman Show starring the Loud family, this unsettling parable follows an obsessed graduate student who plants hidden cameras in a suburban house in order to study an average American clan in its natural habitat. The twist is that "average" is far from normal. Daughter is turning into a Marilyn Manson devotee, while father and son are down in the basement learning how to handle an arsenal of semiautomatic weapons. All the while, mom is quietly going insane in the laundry room. It's the familiar Big Brother scenario, of course, but Clark's complex retelling adds a new dimension. The camera is merely a conduit: It makes visible the darkness already lurking in the hearts of the damaged, deranged characters. When the cameras are discovered, the apocalypse that follows seems predestined.
If Jungle Wedding suffers from a lack of coherence, it also pulses with incendiary energy. With precise skill, Clark transforms his ostensibly normal characters into malfunctioning animals lost in a sterile wilderness of strip malls and convenience stores. In this world, civilization is a few steps from anarchy.