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The Typist

By: Michael Knight
Reviewed by: A. M. Garner
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2010
$20, Hardcover

Michael Knight’s most recent novel, The Typist, has received highest praise, such as “Knight’s best book yet” (Elizabeth Gilbert), “true imagining at its finest” (Richard Bausch), and “elegant, thoughtful, and resonant novel” (Ann Patchett). All of this is true.

For readers, this first person account of a military typist from Mobile as he experiences General MacArthur’s post-World War II occupation of Japan is immediate and compelling. “Van” Vancleave expects a routine tour of duty, but life hands him something quite different when his roommate turns out to be a shyster who weaves the unsuspecting Van into his schemes. Then, to complicate matters even further, Van’s wife sends disconcerting news from home, leading Van to examine his life and the circumstances around him. The Typist, set convincingly at the mid-point of the twentieth century, underscores the fact that the problems of war know no century.

For writers and those who appreciate finely crafted prose, this agile novel is seamless. Knight has previously shown himself to be the master of the short story, and now, at last, he has mastered the novel in a manner unequaled by his earlier work, and he has made the form his own. He has fun in scenes such as when General MacArthur himself summons Private First Class Vancleave to a private viewing of a film of the Army-Navy game:

“You a football fan?” [MacArthur] said.
“Who’s your team?”
“Alabama, sir.”
“You don’t like Army?”
“I like Army fine, sir.”
“But if you had to choose?”
After a moment, I said, “Roll Tide, sir.”

Knight’s prose has few equals when it is concise and tight. When Van receives his wife’s bombshell letter, he reads it over and over, skips dinner, and decides aimlessly to ride a bus. First a woman sits by him, holding a pot-bellied pig. Then when she gets off, another woman sits by him, holding a rooster. “I felt like the victim of a practical joke,” he says. He rides the bus for hours, around and around in an imperfect loop until it returned him to where he had started. “There were times in the Army when I was glad no one had asked me to be a hero, and this was one,” he says. And then he observes of his surroundings: “Little by little, night erased the world.” Sept 2010

A. M. Garner writes and teaches in Florence, Ala. Her latest book is Undeniable Truths.

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