December 2008

Drew Nellins

fiction

The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris

The novels that receive the most respectful receptions are usually those which, first by their bulk and second by their subject matter, insist upon serious treatment. I’ve been reading one such book lately, the second of seven volumes comprising the monumental Remembrance of Things Past, which, in its entirety, serves as the standard for literary ambition gone unchecked. Though I feel I should say (mostly to myself, repeatedly) that I’m enjoying the book, it hasn’t been easy going. I have now accepted that when I start to doze I must set the book on the nightstand mid-paragraph and turn out the light.

And so I recently found myself rationalizing an intermediate novel, one that I might pick up as a diversion from this (albeit lovely) monster. Lustfully eyeing a stack of fresh literary arrivals, I instinctively gravitated toward the book which appeared to be least Proustian in its scope and found myself holding Keith Lee Morris’s new novel, The Dart League King, with its simple cover art and a title which to my ear suggested -- wrongly, it turns out -- a welcomed absence of Big Ideas.

The novel’s opening lines establish the tone: “Tonight was Thursday, and Thursday night meant dart league, and Russell Harmon was the Dart League King. For that reason, and for others, Thursday night was Russell’s favorite time of the week.”

If some books practically don signs announcing their cultural significance, another category contains stories so wonderfully written and fun to read that their insights seem to exist almost by accident. This is just that sort of book, as gripping as it is well-crafted and wise.

The Dart League King takes place over the course of a single day, calling to mind such similarly structured powerhouses as Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Joyce’s Ulysses. But unlike either of those or the aforementioned Remembrance, Morris’s words held my attention without fail. Once started, I didn’t seek out its Wikipedia entry, search for a review, or check out the author bio. I just wanted to read. I wanted to read about cocaine-addled darts whiz Russell Harmon and his distant, dreamy teammate, Tristan on the night of their big match. I wanted to read about Kelly Ashton, the girl both men desire, but who can’t decide which one she prefers. I wanted to read about Brice Habersham, Russell’s darts rival and an undercover D.A. agent. And I wanted to read, perhaps most of all, about drug dealer, Vince Thompson, an on-edge spectator to the tournament, bleeding after a fistfight, armed with a knife and loaded pistol, waiting for Russell, who owes him a debt too large to forgive.

As I return now to Proust, only a little ruefully, it is clear what a fine job I did in selecting my diversionary book. The Dart League King is no Remembrance of Things Past, and Keith Lee Morris is certainly no Proust. And I mean that as a tremendous, grateful compliment.

Of course one should read Proust. One should read Joyce and Woolf. But read Morris too, if only as a substantive alternative to those sometimes overbearing heavy hitters. The Dart League King isn’t dull or excessively complicated; it isn’t difficult, didactic, wordy, or obscure, but -- and I mean this -- don’t be thrown by that. This book deserves as many readers as can get their hands on it.

The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris
Tin House Books
ISBN: 0979419883
210 Pages