Small-Town Gothic

Reviewed By

Keith Lee Morris’s new novel exposes the hidden desires and fears of the local darts champions.

Darts. Drugs. An undercover DEA agent. A drowned woman. Keith Lee Morris’s The Dart League King is a refreshingly adventurous and expertly crafted exploration of a peculiar, dart-loving small town in Idaho. Spanning a single night, the novel is at once compact and expansive, driven equally by character and plot, as Morris plumbs the secrets and heartaches of five residents of Garnet Lake, Idaho.

One of the most remarkable aspects of The Dart League King is the sheer force of the author’s language. The novel is propelled by sentences that reach for—and achieve—a vigorous, colloquial elegance. Morris maintains a skillful balance between the conversational and the poetic—in one moment, clouds are described as being “tall as fucking death, like the grim reaper dressed up and coming over the hills”—and despite his penchant for breathlessly sprawling sentences, there’s always a masterful sense of control. The linguistic scales are frequently pressed, but never tipped too far:

“Vince Thompson’s head hurt like a son of a bitch, a condition that could have been improved, no doubt, if he’d had access to even a single alcoholic beverage of one goddamn variety or another during the course of the last fucking hour or so, but no, even such a simple pleasure as that was going to be denied him tonight, apparently, what with goddamn Bill eyeing him from behind the fucking bar like he, Vince, was a goddamn cattle rustler and Bill was John Fucking Wayne, and so it was starting to look like he was going to have to shoot Russell fucking Harmon stone-cold sober, and Jesus Christ Almighty his head hurt like that asshole Clint Harmon had hit him with a two-by-four, I mean was it his imagination or was his fucking head actually lopsided, like swollen up on the left side so it looked like his brain was ready to leak out his left ear, or was that just a fucking optical illusion caused by the fact that his left eye was even more screwed up than usual?”

The restless energy of the language complements the tumultuous lives of the central characters. Tristan Mackey, Russell Harmon, Vince Thompson, Brice Habersham, and Kelly Ashton spend the night of the dart league championship struggling to manage personal catastrophes of varying sorts: the local deep-thinker, Tristan, is haunted by his failure to prevent the drowning death of a lover; the dart league king himself, Russell, fueled by too much booze and coke, is fretting about debts, lost love, and the odds of winning the tournament; Vince, a small-time dealer, is looking to settle a score; Brice, the convenience store owner/undercover DEA agent, who has somehow managed never to have had sex with his emotionally unstable wife, is planning to take down both Russell and Vince; Kelly, the single mother struggling to escape Garnet Lake, is torn between two very different men. It’s a volatile cast of characters, each of whom contains an explosive set of internal and external conflicts. The result is a novel that crackles with life—a story that is as dynamic as it is compressed.

Keith Lee Morris

Keith Lee Morris

The Dart League King creates the kind of suspense and momentum that makes it a difficult book to put down—quite a feat, considering how little actually happens in much of the novel. The characters spend a lot of time standing around, thinking, and waiting, but even through the most contemplative stretches the tension never sags. Morris suspends his characters long enough to allow their innermost desires and fears to surface, but simultaneously keeps the plot moving and the tensions climbing.

The perils of writing a novel about small towns (or any other frequently traversed landscape) are plentiful: an author can’t simply reflect our pre-existing perceptions of small-town America and its inhabitants, can’t yield to the expected and the clichéd, but instead must make an ostensibly ordinary setting as strange and dazzling as an exotic island. Keith Lee Morris succeeds in this task: his Garnet Lake is surprising and singular, filled with its unique codes, indignities, and mysteries. Garnet Lake is not just any small town, but a landscape so precisely rendered that one could not imagine it existing in any other fictional world but that of The Dart League King.

Laura van den Berg’s first story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was published by Dzanc Books in 2009. More from this author →