The cover of THE HOLIDAY SEASON raises all sorts of alarms: a tired, clichéd work about family dysfunction by a narrator full of oh-so-deep regrets and insights. The photo of a silhouette staring off into the starry night on a snow-covered plain reeks of Hallmark sweetness. And while the book is mostly what one expects from a holiday story with a Sedaris-humor bent, it is at the top of its class. This slim gem is best read in front of the fire during the winter.
The title novella is a portrait of the Posey family: the good soul, now self-neglecting and recent widower Jeff; his son, the tired actor and poetic narrator Frank; and the annoyingly successful brother Ted, who has a beautiful wife and daughters. With the boys’ mother recently dead, Ted has decided to “start some family traditions of his own,” and Jeff refuses to leave his littered house. Frank spends Thanksgiving with Jeff and Christmas with Ted, and we see the dynamics of three men who prefer not to speak of the problems surrounding them, each possessing their own form of pride. Jeff drinks too heavily and refuses to let anyone into his life, even though part of him needs to replace the hole left by his wife’s death. Frank seems unable to grasp a foothold in life: he works in a traveling theater company that abridges plays for school assemblies and lives an uninspired day-to-day life, regretting how little impact Shakespeare’s words have on him. Despite all this, he doesn’t seem all that enthused to start living his life. Ted is unsympathetic to his father’s quirks and fails to see viewpoints other than his own, giving him a jerky quality.
As is crucial for such a character-driven work (there is little plot to speak of), none of them are overly simplistic and they never lapse into more clichéd versions of themselves. There is truth in what each of them believes and how each of them lives, judgment comes with difficulty, and more importantly, one feels no need to do so. These are real people with real problems; our privilege to see them at a particularly vulnerable point of their lives does not lend credence to any harsh moralizing. The lack of resolution doesn’t feel disappointing, surprisingly, a credit to Knight’s deftness. When discussing why he didn’t make the novella a play, Frank writes, “I had no third act, that our story had no clear-cut resolution and likely never would, that whatever we had gained…something was lost as well, some opportunity missed, perhaps, though the nature of that something is hazy to me even now.”
The other piece, “Love at the End of the Year,” is a collage of people’s points of view at a New Year’s party. This work is substantially funnier than “The Holiday Season,” mixing in more humor with the soulful personalities of the characters and their relationships --- for example, the continued attempts of a wife to tell her husband she’s leaving him, though he repeatedly doesn’t get it upon hearing so. But because each point-of-view narrative is only a few pages at a time, the work is less full. With more characters to develop and less space to do so, this story, while by no means bad, also does not live up to the standards of “The Holiday Season.” To its credit, it does retain the no-resolution finish, which again leaves the reader with a conflicted ball of emotions to deal with but not unmanageably so.
So what sticks with us after we leave these people behind? The dialogue and descriptions are full of subtle realism. Knight doesn’t just show (as opposed to tell). He paints. These short works are packed with details, which alone provide enough motivation to slow down and inhale the text rather than moving along at a brisker pace, a natural inclination given the simplicity of the prose. Also worth noting is the pitch-perfect humor. When a 13-year-old girl runs away and leaves her mother a note, it says, “She could make her own decisions. Exclamation point. She didn’t need a mother. Exclamation point. She could look after herself. Double exclamation point. Sincerely, Lulu.”
Knight has a mastery of graceful and rhythmic prose, which he employs elegantly to make his humor stick. Capturing a world in a phrase, he creates wonderful narratives of troubled men and women, people we can empathize with during the heart of winter.
Reviewed by Max Falkowitz on January 22, 2011
The Holiday Season