Keith Lee Morris

"The Dart League King"

(Reviewed by Sudheer Apte Oct 27, 2008)

The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris

One popular trope of American fiction is the small-town youngster wishing to escape the place, to make something of his or her life. But it is relatively rare to find a novel that explores an entire ensemble of such people, and their necessarily intertwined lives in their hometown.

The main characters in The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris are four men, mostly young, and a young woman, in a small town near Moscow, Idaho, where the only lucrative business is a real estate bubble. They all yearn for something they don't have. They don't speak about their yearnings, but instead telegraph them as if in bright neon, through their actions in the course of a few hours one rainy Thursday evening.

The bulk of the action takes place in a small bar called the 321 Club, where all of them are attending a league championship match of the game of darts.

The story develops rapidly: in the first couple of pages, we learn about all four of the men. To Russell Harmon, the "king" of the title, the game forms the only firm anchor in his drifting life-- a life punctuated by temporary dead-end jobs that he hates, and a worsening cocaine habit brought on by association with a local drug dealer. The dealer, Vince Thompson, who is rumored to carry a gun, might show up at any time to reclaim money that Russell owes him.

Russell's worry about the game is the champion from the rival team, Brice Habersham, a newcomer to the town in his forties, who has played darts before "as a professional." The second-best player on Russell's team is his school friend Tristan, who has come home in the spring from college:

"They had known each other since grade school, Russell and Tristan, but never that well. Russell was a jock, mostly, a second-string tight end on the football team, while Tristan was the intellectual type, but cool intellectual---into cool music and movies and books. He'd always wished he'd known Tristan better, to tell the truth, and this year's dart league had been his chance."

By page 22 the fifth character, Russell's old flame Kelly Ashton, has walked into the bar and ordered some wine, causing him additional distraction.

The author, Morris, who teaches creative writing at Clemson University, narrates the story successively through the eyes of the different characters, and we soon get to know and empathize with them, even the ones that are deeply flawed. Throughout the evening, they will interact with each other and make choices that will determine their fates in unexpected ways.

Much of the suspense of the novel is Hitchcockian, in the sense of the reader knowing something the characters are ignorant of, and not knowing what their choices are going to be. For example, Kelly Ashton finds herself a single mother relying on her own alcoholic mother to help raise her daughter, stuck in the same place where she grew up, with no prospects. She looks in the mirror, "afraid she has sold herself short," but her prospects are limited to hooking up either with Russell, a loser she has a soft spot for, or taking a chance with the more promising but unpredictable (and, as the reader knows, dangerously unstable) Tristan. Invited to the 123 Club by Tristan, she tries to make the best of her situation, but she has only limited control over it; the suspense here is whether she will choose the more dangerous option and go home with Tristan.

With great economy of expression, Morris gets us hooked into their tales of sadness, terror, and joy, and creates an un-putdownable thriller. After all, unlike the game of darts, whose rules Russell writes out in detail for his league, their lives are open-ended, full of crises, and very, very messy.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 16 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Dart League King at the publisher

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About the Author:

Keith Lee MorrisKeith Lee Morris received his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Clemson University. His short stories have been published in A Public Space, Southern Review, Ninth Letter, StoryQuarterly, New England Review, The Sun, and the Georgia Review, among other publications.

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