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Two holiday novellas from Michael Knight

Dispirit of the season

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The Holiday Season
By Michael Knight
Grove Press, 195 pp.

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Michael Knight's slim volume The Holiday Season might make a good stocking stuffer for family members in need of escape and commiseration after the shrapnel of present-opening has settled, the eggnog has curdled and cabin fever has set in. Although it is well known that the compulsory merriment of the winter holidays is often betrayed by family fighting, loneliness and melancholy, these two novellas skip right past the joy and go directly to discontentment and misgiving.

"I started this account as a play," writes Frank Posey, the narrator-protagonist of The Holiday Season, the first of the novellas. It's tempting to wonder what might have happened had he finished it that way, too, because the story's best parts are its closely observed, dialogue-driven scenes between family members caught up in the tensions and laments of Thanksgiving and Christmas. The expository passages tend to slacken a bit, some of them straying in search of colorful detail, others lacking in narrative tension that the scenes provide in brief volleys of clipped dialogue.

Frank is an articulate, cheery, mostly unemployed actor (and, apparently, writer) in his early 30s. He lives in a boardinghouse, and also in two shadows: one is that of his father, a retired widower who in his heyday was a town councilman and congressional candidate, and who seems to prefer Frank's more illustrious older brother, Ted—Frank's other shadow. Ted is a lawyer whose lavish home was the windfall of his successful defense of an insurance company, "preventing nine widows, two widowers and three sets of grieving parents from collecting a dime" after a tragic train accident. Ted has a beautiful wife with whom he often bickers, and unconscionably spoiled twin daughters.

All three of these men live in another, invisible shadow: Frank and Ted's deceased mother. Their father has begun to unravel since her death three years earlier, drinking extra Scotch and doing little else. His intractability creates the central conflict in The Holiday Season: where it will be spent. Questions of hosting and travel result in much refusal and resentment, imperiling the annual family gathering. The specter of Mother is always nearby, a reminder that one of the ways the holiday season has of turning sorrowful is by its inevitable remembrance of lost loved ones. Nor does it help that Frank, the archetypical lonely bachelor, has dangerous feelings for Ted's beautiful, dream-haunted wife.

Yet The Holiday Season is an optimistic piece right through to its end—in that way it's of the old school of holiday tales—with neither the weight of tragedy nor the demeanor of melancholia. Less a novella, really, than a long short story (it hasn't the heft of, for example, Heart of Darkness or The Death of Ivan Ilyich—or even A Christmas Carol), it is a sweetish, quickly absorbed digestif after one of those notoriously large holiday meals, or a diverting evening in between Christmas parties.

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If The Holiday Season could have been a play, then its companion piece, Love at The End of The Year, could be a movie. This movie would be an ensemble piece of independent but intertwined stories, like Magnolia or Short Cuts. Set on New Year's Eve, the story is broken into very short sections, each named after the character it follows. Most of the mini-narratives—a woman trying to leave her husband, a teenager trying to run away from home—center on disconnection, incompletion and regret.

And where The Holiday Season was strongest in its two-character scenes, Love at The End of The Year is best when it focuses its attention on the interior lives of its cast, capturing them and their thoughts during uncomfortable, solitary intervals. The several ribbons of the story are bound in one character's observation that "nobody liked to see the underside of someone they loved... Love was too hard an illusion to maintain." Common as that caution is—even Jackson Browne sang it, three decades ago—love is no illusion: If you become aware of illusion, it is not real love you feel. The holidays have a way of exposing the undersides of those you are closest to, the pale and tender and even sullied places where love most truly belongs.

Michael Knight reads at Quail Ridge Books and Music, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh, on Thursday, Dec. 13, at 7 p.m. Call 828-1588 or visit www.quailridgebooks.com

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