A kid dies, a man commits suicide, a friend kills a friend and a wife cheats (maybe). And that's just in the first 84 pages of Keith Lee Morris' new short story collection Call it What You Want (Tin House, 264 pages, $14.95). With his matter-of-fact prose and bitter humor, the author has spent a decade writing quietly debilitating portraits of the kind of men that grew up poor in small Western towns...and never left.
In Morris' last book, 2008's The Dart League King, they were small-time addicts and big-dreaming losers vying for bar game supremacy. In his new book, they're a bigger cross section of sad sacks and renegades, from scheming husbands and bored college kids to a roofer convinced his life is ruined because he was born too late to open a record shop on Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love.
Raised in Sandpoint, Idaho, Morris says he's still part of this world. "I barely graduated from high school, went to college and proceeded to flunk out. I didn't get an undergrad degree until 30," says Morris, a creative writing professor at Clemson University. "I had no expectations." That sense of aimlessness is still a through line in his stories. "You come from a small town and you don't see the world through the same lens as people from New York do," he explains. "Your expectations aren't the same."
Oddly enough, Morris' men (there are women in Call it, most notably a wife trying to juggle a son with cancer and a distant husband, in the devastating "What I Want From You") often seem to expect too much. Aloof and conniving, they're unsatisfied with a life they think ought to be just more, even if they aren't willing to exert any effort to make it so. Morris' ability to capture these people without irony or pity turns them from caricatures to our own lonesome, troubled neighbors and family members, allowing each a few beautiful moments in otherwise fucked-up lives.
In "Harmonica," Taylor Rue, a guy who has just stabbed a lit cigarette in another man's eye and stolen his motorcycle, is frozen stiff with wonder at the sight of a former high-school classmate playing a mouth organ in Big Dave's bar. "He's trying to make a shape, something that will indicate to Stewart Busby what he doesn't seem to understand," Morris writes of Rue's need to praise the music, "that [Busby] took the smoke-filled air of Big Dave's into his lungs and blew it back out in a wonderful stream, but there isn't a good way for Taylor Rue to explain it with his hands."
The collection as a whole is uneven—Morris conceived of the book as a set of tales inspired by dreams only to later add some less hallucinatory works—but many of the stories are truly affecting.
Morris is right—you can call his stories what you want. His characters have bigger problems to worry about.
Tin House/Disjecta presents a night with Keith Lee Morris, Lee Montgomery and AgesandAges.