A Review of Jennifer Militello’s Knock Wood
November 26, 2019 § 2 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
“He dropped acid like it was going out of style. He drove trucks into trees without remorse. He was the son of a garbage collector and a country western singer, and the first time I saw him, he was passed out in the cab of his stepbrother’s pickup,” writes Jennifer Militello in Knock Wood: A Memoir in Essays.
“He’s trouble,” her friend warns her in “Theory of Relativity,” the first of twenty-nine short, lyrical essays in this collection. The comment only makes the sixteen-year-old curious and desperate to know bad boy Harry.
Militello’s essays weave in and out of three rather complex stories: a mentally ill aunt in an abusive marriage who throws herself in front of a subway; Harry, the high school rebel, who’s intense, complicated, and doomed; and the author who ends up arrested for a larceny she didn’t even know she committed.
The title, Knock Wood, refers to an old superstition. Knuckles are rapped on wood to thwart misfortune or attract good luck—perhaps a Celtic tradition, turning to tree spirits for help.
On an airplane, Militello reads a Murakami novel about a man with cancer and immediately feels compelled to knock on wood to prevent illness. However, she can’t find wood, so she finds the next best thing: paper. Yet, paper doesn’t have the power of wood, which she learns the hard way. “I had knocked on a newspaper eighteen years before, while dating Harry,” Militello writes, “and now I was waiting to pay the price.”
Knocking on wood becomes the over-arching metaphor for the ways people try to escape misfortune. They knock on wood, toss salt over their shoulders, jump over cracks in the sidewalk, recite Hail Marys, hoping, always to no avail, to be saved.
The author’s hazy, slightly nightmarish dreamscapes, such as Militello’s first date with Harry, make this book hard to put down. The girl arrives at Harry’s house to find him “with his arms elbow-deep in the guts of a car.” When they stroll to the back, he pulls a rabbit from the hutch. She insists on naming it Hazel, to which Harry replies, “It doesn’t need a name.” Soon, she learns why: “the pelt has been hung, stretched on a rack, and maggots crawled over it, cleaning it of flesh. Four solid pegs held it in place and its shape seemed obscene and exposed. Vulnerable.”
My mind drifted to Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, which puzzled me at first. Both are small books: Knock Wood, 128 pages; The Lover, 144. As I studied Duras’ book again, I realized both tell stories of romances doomed from the start. Duras is fifteen, attending high school in Saigon, where she meets a wealthy, older Chinese man, and engages in a secret, complicated, and intense affair. Naively, she believes the man might rescue her family from the financial ruin that has befallen her family since her father’s death. However, she’s French. He’s Chinese, and there’s no way his family will approve their marriage.
The lyricism alone is reason enough to compare the two books, but it’s also the authors’ cool, haunting scenes, narrative distant, and spare, yet vivid descriptions.
As Militello sits in jail, shocked at being arrested for driving Harry, his friend, and their stolen goods, she studies the many names carved into the table before her: “The wood rough, the ink fading in some places, and in others, dark and clear, it occurred to me that attached to every name here was a person who had committed a crime.” She learns, she will be tried as an adult—the only one of the three who’s eighteen. “I should have explained to the cops that they’d made a mistake. That I was not one of them,” she writes. “Except, I now realized, all that made them them was their actions.”
The poet’s words are evocative, terrifying, mesmerizing, and elegantly shaped throughout. Part of me wanted just to savor the language. The other part wanted to rush ahead to find out what happens to these sad, quirky characters.
I’m not superstitious, never knocked on wood. However, I watched my grandmother pick up the salt shaker and fling tiny white granules into the air. They scattered across the floor, became smashed into the wood by our shuffling feet. After a life of factory work, poverty, and sheer exhaustion, Grandma died at fifty-seven. Yet, I like to picture her with that salt shaker held high, glowing with possibility, imagining a better end.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity and teaches writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Pleiades, Superstition Review, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essay “Gargoyles,” appears in the anthology, Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.