Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Short Story Month - Keith Lee Morris

Keith Lee Morris has received a lot of well-deserved attention of late for his fine novel The Dart League King, but let’s not forget that this author writes a hell of a short story; if you haven’t read his collection The Best Seats in the House, you’d better run out right now and get yourself a copy. No other writer I know inhabits his characters so fully and so well—even in his more surreal and metafictional works (see “The Cyclist” and “There Are in This World Moments of Great Beauty”) the narrators’ voices and interior lives are never overshadowed by the experiments of the form.

Two of my favorite stories, written years apart but sharing many similarities, are “The Children of Dead State Troopers,” from Best Seats in the House, and “Camel Light,” from the Fall/Winter 2008-9 issue of Ninth Letter. “The Children of Dead State Troopers,” originally published in New England Review, is a perfect example of the subtlety mastery with which this author takes an ordinary moment and, through a series of small, deft turns, creates a situation of palpable anxiety. In the story, Randall Moon is home alone with his toddler son, working a jigsaw puzzle and distractedly worrying about his wife who has gone to see a doctor about her increasingly painful headaches. Randall is struggling to hold it all together, and seems on the verge of failing: he can’t seem to get his son dressed, or keep his focus on the puzzle, and we gradually come to see that as his wife has gotten sicker he hasn’t been able to keep the house clean. The description of the growing disarray mirrors the increasing disorder in the Moons’ lives as well as Randall’s increasing anxiety as hours pass and his wife doesn’t return from the doctor. In the midst of all this, Randall takes a series of phone calls from the mysterious Joe Butter Rentals, ostensibly soliciting donations on behalf of the families of state troopers killed in the line of duty. The phone calls are initially only an annoyance, but quickly develop into something sinister, and then surreal, as the disembodied voice of Officer Joe takes a graphic and very personal approach, drawing parallels between Randall Moon’s situation and the tragedies of the dead state troopers and their surviving children. If you break this story down by external action only, all that seems to be going on is a series of phone conversations—Randall Moon and his three-year-old son are the only characters we actually see, and the action of the story never leaves the house. And yet, an entire drama is played out, to great effect, in the small details of Randall’s engagement with the his son, in his elliptical conversations with Officer Joe, in his constant circling back to his wife’s headaches and her delayed return from the doctor, what that means, what it could mean today and for the rest of his life. In the final scene, when Randall for the first time steps outside and lifts his arms beseechingly to the sky, the reader, too, feels release, as if we have been holding our breaths anxiously all this time.

In “Camel Light” we also encounter a man home alone waiting for his wife—but in this case, he’s not worried at the outset, he’s glad. Rick Barker is glad to have an hour to himself for once, the children off with their friends and his wife gone to her yoga class. Sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee, Rick ponders what to do with this rare moment of solitude, and as he contemplates the pleasing options (reading, watching baseball, listening to old records, practicing chip shots on the lawn), he idly notices something out of place on the kitchen floor—a cigarette—that sends him spiraling mentally into the past and into a series of potential futures. Where did the cigarette come from? The possibilities, ranging from either one of Rick’s sons to his wife to the worst case scenario of his wife’s imagined lover, develop story lines of their own as Rick, immobile at the table, plays out various alternate lives in his imagination—ultimately doing nothing, but holding on to the prospect of future action like a talisman. “Camel Light” has even less physical action than “Children of Dead State Troopers” and yet feels even more expansive—the interior life of Rick Barker is so finely drawn that we literally live the story of his wife’s betrayal in his head, so by the time we see her actual car pulling into the driveway, there is a jarring moment when we realize that she is, in fact, just coming back from gym, that she is only the wife who went to yoga class, and as far as we really know, nothing more.

The current trend for flashy, edgy, and gratuitously weird in short fiction may have left you looking for short fiction with a little more emotional substance—if so, you need to seek out Keith Lee Morris’s stories right this second. You won’t find here any pyrotechnics, verbal funhouse games, or unnecessary bells and whistles. Morris’s stories are incredibly powerful, seamless, smoothly and quietly hypnotic like the voice of Officer Joe Butter Rentals himself.

1 comment:

Dan Wickett said...

I need to pick these earlier books up as The Dart League King is still one of my favorite reads of the past six months.

Great post.