Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

McKnight’s stories seldom lack external action, but the internal action of the characters is often his central focus. His stories often use first-person narration, and some are obviously drawn from personal experiences. However, McKnight writes convincingly in the voices of a range of African American males, drawn from various backgrounds, social classes, and occupational choices. One of the most distinctive qualities of McKnight’s fiction is the trueness of voice for each individual narrator.

As one might expect from McKnight’s life, the settings of his stories vary. Several of his stories are set in West Africa, where McKnight spent a year teaching and writing. Most of his stories are set somewhere in the United States. One common factor in the latter stories is that the protagonist is typically isolated in a predominately white environment, which is often openly hostile.

Although McKnight’s African stories are boldly experimental, he more often opts for a plain, unpretentious style. His narrators sound like real people; they are never forced into articulating epiphanies beyond the realistic range of perception established for their ages, classes, or occupations. However, his stories have their moments of poetry, as when Clint finally sees the light on his own racism. McKnight gently leads Clint to this point of self-realization, with plenty of digressions along the way.

One factor that distinguishes McKnight from the African American protest writers who precede him is his political reticence. It would be easy enough to demonize the whites in this story, but McKnight deftly forces the reader to confront the more difficult truth of this story: The narrator has learned to despise his own race. Readers, regardless of skin color, are forced to re-examine their own racial biases. His stories, as McKnight says that they should, tend to get under one’s skin.