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Book Review: The Dart League King

The Dart League King
By Keith Lee Morris
Tin House Books, 2008

In his choppy but spirited sophomore novel The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris tries gamesomely to make a mountain from a molehill. The premise of the book is flauntingly trivial: in a tiny town in Idaho a league dart match is waged at a local bar. Russell Harmon, our lovable loser of so much sitcom lore, is the reigning dart league king; however, on this night he’s pitted against Brice Habersham, formerly a professional dart thrower.

Gradually, though, into the foreground of this rather sweetly generic landscape, Morris inserts an increasingly manic and bizarre menagerie of subplots. Russell owes money to a coke dealer who may decide that night to kill him over the debt; a local beauty (with “breasts as large as grapefruits”—Morris gets lazy when it comes to characterizing women) reveals to one of the dart players that he is the father of her child; one of Russell’s teammates becomes deranged from his secret knowledge behind the news report of a missing college student; and an FBI agent plans to arrest Russell and his dealer as part of a drug sting—after competing in the match, of course.

These melodramas are crudely knotted together by way of some exceedingly unlikely behavior in a manner that’s as entertaining as it is heavy handed. Each character, moreover, gets the benefit of a narrative voice, and the style of the prose in every chapter alternates to reflect their different backgrounds and attitudes. Morris has a humorous, easygoing colloquial touch (television writing seems an inevitability), but a few too many voices, particularly that of Vince the vengeful drug dealer, fall short of resolving into plausible people:

…you could just leave old Vince out of the big money, he’d just go on making his money slowly, slowly, because that way he could sleep nights like he hadn’t for a while, partly because of the fucking meth on the streets now, this homemade cheap-ass shit that Vince wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, all these amateurs cooking up this shit in their trailers out in the fucking boonies, but primarily because of this dickwad Russell Harmon, this goddamn addicted fuzzy-brained numb-nuts who wouldn’t pay his legitimately accrued debts…

The debt to George Saunders in this fragment is found on virtually every page of The Dart League King, so it’s not surprising that the best bits of the novel flourish from its most mundane aspects. The dart matches are terrific, joyously suspenseful in the infallible tradition of come-from-behind sports stories. When Morris tries to attain comparable suspense from his more operatic subplots he goes amiss. The end of the novel especially is weird and disturbing to no clear purpose (it’s a horrific scene involving the missing student and the grapefruit-breasted woman). Morris is taking a risk with it, and you can’t exactly grudge him for that, but nevertheless it feels like a fucking lame-ass douche move (as Vince might put it) to drop the reader from the highs of an underdog dart triumph to a meaninglessly grisly and shocking finale.

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