Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Typist

A Novel

by Michael Knight

The most ambitious novel to date from the award-winning Southern writer Michael Knight, about a green young American posted to the strange realm of post-World War II Japan, where his clear-cut Western values are distinctly challenged over the first year of the occupation.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 240
  • Publication Date August 09, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4536-9
  • Dimensions 5" x 7.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Rife with the crisp dialogue, complex characters, and stunning economy of language for which Michael Knight’s previous work has been praised, The Typist chronicles the early, halting rehabilitation of the grisly Pacific theater of the Second World War—specifically occupied Japan, where Western bureaucrats flooded into Tokyo, taking charge of their former enemies.

When Francis Vancleave (“Van”) joins the army in 1944, he has every reason to expect his term of service will pass uneventfully. After all, the war is winding down and Van’s one singular talent—typing ninety-five words a minute—keeps him off the battlefield and in General MacArthur’s busy Tokyo headquarters, where his days are filled with paperwork in triplicate and letters of dictation.

Little does Van know that the first year of the occupation will prove far more volatile for him than for the U.S. Army. Bunked with a troubled combat veteran cum-black marketer and recruited to babysit General MacArthur’s eight-year-old son, Van is suddenly tangled in the complex—and risky—personal lives of his compatriots. As he brushes shoulders with panpan girls and Communists on the bustling streets of Tokyo, Van struggles to uphold his convictions in the face of unexpected conflict—especially the startling news that reaches his barracks from his young war bride, a revelation that threatens Van with a kind of war wound he could never have anticipated.

Though grounded in the history of Japan’s reconstruction era in the wake of World War II, The Typist is unmistakably contemporary in its portrayal of military occupations and of individual experience in an immensely complicated time. At once spare and captivating, it is a book about unlikely kinships, good intentions gone awry, and the many forks in the road to manhood.

Tags Literary


‘michael Knight tells the story of generals, war, and occupation through the eyes of a typist who proves himself to be the calm at the center of the storm. The result is this elegant, thoughtful, and resonant novel.” —Ann Patchett

The Typist is Knight’s best book yet. It reads with a combination of urgency and a quiet, rush-less path to the novel’s slow reveal. There is not a misstep, not a mislaid sentence. I believed and breathed every single word. This book awed me.” —Elizabeth Gilbert

The Typist is reminiscent of The English Patient—slow, sad, wistful and romantic.” —Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times

“Elegant . . . Knight’s novel is told in sparse prose, but the story has gravity and a heft that makes it a memorable read.” —Kristin Carlson, Chicago Tribune

“An understated, elegant, compact novel of the American occupation of Japan, by an underrated fiction writer.” —California Chronicle (Top 100 Books of the Year)

“Knight is an accomplished author of short fiction, and here he uses those skills to craft a fully realized novel that retains the attributes of the best short stories, including concision and cohesion.” —Shelf Awareness

“I loved The Typist. It is a beautiful portrait of a kind of walking pneumonia of the spirit that seeks and finds its own cure. It is also, for me, most impressive because of its setting—in a time far before Knight ever drew breath. It is true imagining at its finest.” —Richard Bausch

“Gambling, prostitutes, bomb craters and black-market transactions: these are the exigencies of a military occupation, or at least of America’s occupation of Tokyo in the mid-1940s. Given the sin-rich atmosphere of The Typist, it may come as a surprise that the tone is more beatific than vulgar. But then Mr Knight has never shied away from taking the unexpected angle in his fiction. . . . Knight’s prose transforms even cheap booze and poor weather into lovely atmospheric touches. . . . [His] elegant prose recalls the fiction of W.G. Sebald, another author who explored the melancholy postwar consciousness with subtle mastery.” —The Economist (online)

“Knight paints a disquietingly dreamlike portrait of a postwar Japan . . . Not quite darkly comic, not quite ironic, Knight’s book is driven by earnest, unaffected storytelling.” —Publishers Weekly

“[A] quiet novel [that] packs a strong philosophical punch.” —Anis Shivani, The Huffington Post (Most Anticipated Novels for 2010)

“[A] lovely little novel.” —Ellen Akins, Star Tribune

“The narrator’s strong first-person voice . . . gives the novel a pensive tone that has more in common with an Alice Munro story than a typical war novel. . . . With its spare, economical prose, this novel brings a different slant to the theme of war and relationships.” —Library Journal

“Knight cunningly details the confluence of the boredom of American soldiers and the economic plight of the post-bombing Japanese. Two cultures collide and gross exploitation occurs, but Knight is still able to craft heartfelt relationships amid the confusion.” —Blair Parsons, Booklist

The Typist is a compelling meditation on how public events shape private lives. Packing sharp characterization and a rollercoaster plot into a brisk 200 pages, it is also a notable feat of literary economy . . . [and its] brevity is a source of its power. . . . It is no small thing to convince a reader to suspend disbelief about well-known events; Knight does so masterfully.” —John C. Williams, BookPage

“Knight paints a disquietingly dreamlike portrait of a postwar Japan that harbors no animosity toward its American conquerors and where Hiroshima becomes a sightseeing destination and the site of an American football game. . . . The Typist is driven by earnest storytelling, and the soft shocks it delivers render this a modest, entertaining story.” —Baldwin Register

“Lyrical prose balances short, clipped sentences against longer, poetic passages with a grace and control reminiscent of Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff. . . . [The Typist is] a masterful execution of symbiosis between content and form . . . [that] calls to mind Ernest Hemingway . . . Michael Knight has delivered a book that achieves in an astonishingly compressed form all the artistry, depth, and seriousness of a thousand-page doorstop of a war novel. The Typist is a fine addition to the catalogue of World War II novels, capturing an often overlooked facet of the war. But it chiefly deserves attention and admiration for proving effectively that a book need not be long to be big.” —Ed Tarkington, Chapter 16 Blog (Tennessee Humanities Council)

“Thrilling . . . [with] quiet power . . . Knight produces a number of stunning set-pieces, in which what must have been considerable research is elevated through imagination and skillful prose into marvelously effective scenes that submerge historical detail in effective drama . . . The apparent simplicity of Van’s narrative belies the increasing emotional magnitude of the story he tells. As the tale unfolds, it gradually builds in resonance, and the small elements of narrative and character put in place at the outset erupt in the final pages with seismic effect. By the time Van returns to the United States, his desk-bound military experience feels as authentic, and convulsive, as that of any frontline warrior, and as transformational—for him and for the reader. . . . [An] elegant, restrained novel.” —NancyKay Shapiro, The Rumpus

“Spare in detail but mesmerizing . . . For readers with an interest in post-war Japan, The Typist is an artistic change of pace. For those without an interest, the novel will inform and illuminate.” —A. B. Mead, Author Magazine

“Immediate and compelling . . . The Typist, set convincingly at the mid-point of the twentieth century, underscores the fact that the problems of war know no century. For those who appreciate finely crafted prose, this agile novel is seamless. . . . [Knight] has mastered the novel in a manner unequaled by his earlier work, and he has made the form his own.” —A. M. Garner, Alabama Writer’s Forum (online)

“Densely resonating in the quiet devastation and eventual reinvention of a thoughtful young man.” —Book Dragon (Smithsonian blog)

“A gentle book . . . There is an authentic simplicity in Michael Knight’s sparse writing, a puissance that might elude a less gifted writer. . . . This slow, effortless, luxuriant prose, prose that casts a spell, prose that doesn’t waste a word and refuses to erect artificial roadblocks to the story. . . . One work that comes instantly to mind is Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. . . . This small, quiet novel . . . packs a disproportionate wallop. . . . Knight has created a compelling meditation of a sliver of history.” —Mostly Fiction blog


A Huffington Post 10 Best Books of 2010
An Indie Next List Notable selection (August 2010)
One of California Chronicle‘s Top 100 Books of the Year
Selected as a Fall 2010 SIBA “Okra Pick: A Recipe for Great Reading” title


After Pearl Harbor, my father was gone more often than he was home, piloting his tugboat from Mobile, Alabama, where we lived, to factories as far away as Louisville and Kansas City, barges riding low in the water from the weight of materials for the war effort. He’d been too young for the first war and now he was too old, but I was proud of him just the same.

For her part, my mother never seemed to mind the erratic schedule or to resent the other wives in our neighborhood, the ones whose husbands came home each night in time for supper, and though I admired my father very much, though I wanted to pilot a tugboat of my own one day, I minded on her behalf. When he wasn’t on the water, my mother fussed over him, cobbling his favorite meals together, despite the rations, rubbing his feet while he read the paper, wearing her hair the way he liked, pressing a finger to her lips to make sure I didn’t wake him in the morning.

Then, in what seemed no time at all, my father would pack his grip and vanish from our lives again, the only proof of his existence dry whiskers in the sink and an extra pillow on my mother’s bed.

My mother had been a secretary before she married, and during the war, she took piecemeal work for extra money, mostly papers for students at the Jesuit college in our town. Nights, she’d set her typewriter, a 1938 Corona Portable, on the kitchen table after dinner, and I’d linger over the dishes as a pretext to watch her. My mother was pretty all the time but her face in concentration was mesmerizing, lips pursed, eyebrows knitted. Her fingers flashed over the keys. It was my mother who taught me how to type. The trick, she told me, was to forget about your hands. I allowed these lessons only on nights when my father was away. She gave me scripture to practice on. Blessed are the poor of spirit and For now we see through a glass darkly and so forth. She was not an overtly religious woman—I never saw her cross herself outside of mass—but we attended services every Sunday, sometimes with my father, sometimes not, depending on his work schedule and his mood, and though I quit church in the army, I never did manage to shake what I would call a spiritual inclination.

Every so often, when my father was gone and my mother was lonely and sleep eluded her, she’d slip down the hall to my room and ask me to scoot over on my bed. I’d sigh and grumble out of a kind of teenage sense of obligation, but the truth is I didn’t mind. She’d curl up with her chest against my back, her knees in the crooks of mine, her hands pressed together, as if in prayer, between my shoulders.

Our secrets: my typing lessons and her nights in my bed.

Looked back on, those days seem happy enough, all things considered. I had plenty of friends and I chased my share of girls without success. Before the war, the biggest thing to happen in my life was when Alabama whipped Stanford in the Rose Bowl. That was part of the problem, I suppose. I enlisted three days after graduation. Did my basic at Fort Benning. Got married two weeks before I shipped overseas. She was seventeen years old, one of those girls who made bandages for the Red Cross and danced with soldiers at the USO, and I was one of those soldiers headed off to war. Near the end of basic training, an assignments officer asked if I had any special talents. At first I could think of nothing, and we just kept looking at each other. Finally, I remembered I could type. I shipped out eighteen months before we dropped the bomb, my life so far receding, my life to come spreading out before me big as the ocean. I was attached to the Officers Personnel Section, a sort of military secretarial pool, of General MacArthur’s headquarters, first in Brisbane, then Manila. In September 1945, a month after the surrender, the whole operation was relocated to Tokyo, where the story that I want to tell begins.