The Dart League King
by Keith Lee Morris
Tin House Books, 210 pp., $14.95
In his latest and best book, The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris examines the subtle gradations between choice, whim, and fate. Morris offers a thrilling literary page-turner that examines the lives of five characters suffering through a stormy summer dart league night at the 321 Club in Garnet Lake, Idaho. The book embodies the agony and the joy of unintended consequences with a nail-biter of a plot and prose that zings and flies and hits home hard with the thump of a well-thrown dart.
These characters’ trajectories do not so much intersect as crash in a five-life pile-up. Russell Harmon, the self-described Dart League King, has delusions of darting grandeur but is matched against a former pro, and his cocaine habit is not helping his game. Harmon owes a huge debt to a dealer who is packs heat and knows where to find him. Meanwhile, an undercover DEA agent snoops around the bar, looking for a rat. Soon enough a teammate shows up with Harmon’s ex-girlfriend. By the time Harmon opens the second bindle of coke and throws those first couple warm-up darts, the novel is cooking along with the pace of a good buzzed night at the bar.
Garnet Lake is a madcap version of Sandpoint, Idaho, the real-life town Morris has mapped in his more sober stories and a previous novel, The Greyhound God. In Garnet Lake, people dream small but talk big, and one of Morris’s strengths is his ability to capture the sadness behind trash talk. Much of the novel is told through internal monologue, and Morris skillfully mimics the pitch and timbre of each character’s voice, summoning up the complicated emotion hidden behind their humdrum desires. Morris’s characters implicitly know that their longing to “get the fuck out of this town” is really a need to “get to a place of their own devising where there wasn’t any fate and there wasn’t any God and there was only a clear, clean space above it all.”
The Dart League King, especially early on, gets a lot of mileage out of dramatic ironies. Take Harmon’s early worry that, even after almost a whole season’s worth of play, “he still didn’t know [teammate] Tristan very well.” A fairly quotidian thought to anyone who has tried to forge a lasting friendship, Harmon’s lament has a darker echo when we learn later that the “cool intellectual” teammate was involved in the mysterious disappearance of a college student. Suddenly, the thoughtless decision Russell makes, inviting his pal out to the car for a sniff of the ol’ nose candy and maybe an honest conversation, is fraught with tension. Will Tristan confess? How will Russell respond? What about Harmon’s ex? Neither character knows that what happens in Russell Harmon’s truck will change their lives forever; they just want to get high.
But that is one of the book’s tamer example of impulse coming to resemble fate—imagine an armed drug dealer stopping in at a bar, just one drink before doing business, and there’s his deadbeat father, sidled up to a sweaty glass. Morris gets away with plotting like this because his characters’ hyperactive brains are busy with background that tells us: hey, all this might look like chance, but it has to happen.
In the second half of the book, Morris relies too heavily on the inner monologue. While the close-third-person free indirect style is clearly Morris’s forte, by the time the dramatic action heats up, abstract language slows the book’s velocity. The second half of the book strikes the target when physical description and internal monologue get mixed up, as in this scene, where Russell Harmon is about to throw what may be the game-winning dart:
And that hand was raising already, because he couldn’t stop to think, and that hand was now releasing the dart, and Russell felt all the breath go out of him as if it were his breath and not his hand that set the silver ball onto that wheel, sent the dart into the air, where it twirled ever so briefly, like the bright burst of a single lifetime measured against the stars, the flights spinning gently in little flames of candle light, blond twists of a small girl’s hair […]
It is at moments like this, where Morris’s characters realize their utter aloneness, yet their utter connection to the world around them, that The Dart League King reveals its true beauty. Aristotle’s tragic recognition is at work here: as his dart arcs through the air, Harmon recognizes what his choices, however unconscious or rash, have wrought. That Harmon turns out pretty much okay by the book’s end is proof of Morris’s belief in grace.
It is no coincidence that so many of Morris’s characters savor the warm-up; they believe that they can practice at life before they really have to play. What they do not recognize until it is tragically too late is that in life, there are no warm-ups. The game is always on, the dart already cast; the clock never stops, even when you run out of bounds or wave your arms to call for a time out.