Russell Harmon is the self-proclaimed king of his small-town Idaho dart league, but all is not well in his kingdom. In the midst of the league championship match, the intertwining stories of those gathered at the 411 club reveal Russell’s dangerous debt to a local drug dealer, his teammate Tristan Mackey’s involvement in the disappearance of a college student, and a love triangle with a former classmate.
The characters in Keith Lee Morris’s second novel struggle to find the balance between accepting and controlling their destinies, but their fates are threaded together more closely than they realize.
"In this absorbing and intelligent novel, Morris (The Greyhound God) follows five characters through a handful of hours culminating in a dart contest on a Thursday night in Garnet Lake, Idaho: Russell Harmon, who lives for the dart league and his cocaine habit; teammate Tristan Mackey, who is haunted by having not prevented the drowning of a classmate; Kelly Ashton, who wants desperately for someone to rescue her and her young daughter from this small town; Russell’s darts rival Brice Habersham, a DEA agent posing as the owner of a gas station; and drug dealer Vince Thompson, who, tonight, is carrying a 9mm Beretta to his meeting with Russell. As each chapter shifts from one voice to the next, Morris cranks up the tension so that by the time the dart match arrives, the book is impossible to put down. Morris explores how even the most banal choices we make—to get in the car or not?—can have a life-altering impact."
—Publishers Weekly, Starred Review and Pick of the Week
"This sensitive, cleverly constructed novel of small-town life and big-league dreams follows a cast of five in the hours leading up to a Thursday night dart contest. Russell Harmon, painfully aware of his unsuitability for the logging work that is the economic mainstay of Garnet Lake, Idaho, is banking all his self-esteem on retaining his title of Dart League King, although he has a couple of obstacles in his way. He owes a lot of money to the local drug dealer, the incredibly bad tempered Vince Thompson, who could very well show up at the big contest with a 9mm Beretta. Russell is facing a formidable opponent in Brice Habersham, who recently bought the town’s gas station and was, at one time, a professional dart player. Even more distracting is the fact that intellectual college grad and fellow teammate Tristan Mackey has\ shown up with town hottie Kelly Ashton, Russell’s old love. Secrets and surprises are revealed as the narrative shifts among the five voices, injecting the culminating chapters with an almost unbearable tension. All the while, Morris continues to draw a subtle, near flawless portrait of the unique ways that small-town life can both nurture and suffocate its residents."
— Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist, Starred Review
"A dark and deeply involving novel with a haunting moment on just about every page. Suspenseful, gritty, great."
"As gripping as it is well-crafted and wise...Morris’s words held my attention without fail...This book deserves as many readers as can get their hands on."
—Drew Nellins, Bookslut
"It is as compelling a novel as I've read all year. Morris, like Martin Amis in the 1989 novel London Fields, uses darts as a metaphor for striving by an inarticulate male protagonist, but also as a plot device to bring together five excruciatingly credible characters in a neatly crafted work bound for critical acclaim."
—Matt Davis, The Portland Mercury
"South Carolina-based writer/English professor Keith lee Morris gets Americans—especially the small town variety. The fiction writer's latest book, a tight weave of stories centered on an ill-fated Idaho bar league dart championship, is full of enraged dealers, do-good mothers and drifting small town souls. But it is Morris's knack for stark, funny dialogue and left-field plot twists that turn his work from caricature to a beautiful and brutal dissection of the drinking buddies you thought you knew."
—Kelly Clarke, Willamette Week
"Morris imagines characters that are so real, so human, so vulnerable, so damaged, that we feel like we are learning the dirty little secrets we always wanted to know about people we have observed but never really understood...This book breaks your heart in the end with a hair-rising descent into darkness. Keith Lee Morris hits the bullseye with The Dart League King."
—Vick Mickunas, Dayton Daily News
"This just might be the best book I've read this year. Morris skillfully weaves through the lives of five major characters, in a third person narration, as they struggle with their lives and with what they might and might not be able to control...Morris allows the reader into the minds of each of these characters and with each one he's written an almost perfect blend of positive and negative, or of confidence and worry...This was one I did not put down after I had read the first two or three sections—Morris had me hooked and didn't let go, and really still hasn't."
—Dan Wickett, Emerging Writers Network
"Keith Morris is one of my favorite fiction writers and The Dart League King is his best book yet. In his Idaho you can see the rest of America, in his Idahoans the rest of us Americans: funny, grave, profane, tender, violent, full of longing for something and someone we don't really deserve and will do almost anything to get anyway. I am in awe of this novel, this novelist."
—Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England
"What a testament it is to a splendid novelist's powers to pitch-perfectly create a small-town dart league and in doing so not only illuminate the zeitgeist but some universal truths to boot. The Dart League King is a nine-darter of a novel and Keith Lee Morris is a writer whose books I have promised myself never to skip."
—Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain
"Sign me up as a member of the Keith Lee Morris fan club. His characters are as real, fallible, and surprising as anyone I've ever met, and his novel has all the textures of real life: precarious, tender, and utterly engrossing."
—Kelly Link, author of Magic for Beginners
"I would give my throwing arm to write a novel as tightly woven and fast and suspenseful and ultimately heartbreaking as The Dart League King. Keith Lee Morris has created an edgy, perfect masterpiece, with more damn life in it than 99% of the books I've ever read. People will be reading and talking about The Dart League King for years to come. I'd wager a twelve-pack on it."
—Donald Ray Pollock, author of Knockemstiff
"Morris is heir to the Richard Ford of Rock Springs; he has that rare gift of writing truthfully about people we know and care for."
—William Giraldi, The Believer
"The Dart League King is no lullaby. This chilling novel pulled me right in and through. I see it as a mystery—told in reverse—a who-will-do-it as opposed to a whodunit, and Morris is perfectly suited to this task."
—Julianna Baggott, author of The Madam and Which Brings Me to You
"Let there be no doubt that Keith Lee Morris knows the game...But the real strength of this book is in the prose and one might only hope to be as adept at their craft as is Morris...whatever your interest—be it darts, life or just a damn good read—The Dart League King is worth every penny."—Paul Seigel, Dartoid 's World
"The Dart League King is an intelligent and compelling novel about how our past choices come to impact our life; and how our self-perception and self-deception colors our awareness of these choices."
—Kevin Holtsberry, Collected Miscellany
"With great economy of expression, Morris gets us hooked into their tales of sadness, terror, and joy, and creates an un-putdownable thriller."
—Sudheer Apte, Mostly Fiction Book Reviews
"Morris manages to weave a tale that lasts for just one night but which the reader will remember for much longer...The penchant for driving the plot of his fast-paced mystery novel is what makes Morris an author to watch. Each of the main characters receives enough stage time for the reader to really care about how these characters end up by the book's end. The creatively titled sections, colorful dialogue and inventive usage of literary tactics...keep the wheels constantly whirring."
—Allison Stadd, BookBrowse.com
"[The Dart League King] 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...The novel is propelled by sentences that reach for—and achieve—a vigorous, colloquial elegance...The result is a novel that crackles with life—a story that is as dynamic as it is compressed."
—Laura Van Der Berg, The Rumpus.net
"Unpredictable, never obvious."
—Diana P. Jordan
"Morris directs us into the minds of these characters...Morris allows their confessions to jolt the book so powerfully."
—Ashley Warlick, The Greenville News
"The Dart League King is really about the beauty and pain of the small decisions (good and bad) that define us, and about how something as simple as a mountain lake can contain in equal parts the poetry of the ideal, the mundane, and the terrible."
—Nicole Backens, Colorado Review
The Trouble with Liza Hatter
On the evening before his college graduation, Tristan Mackey walked into the campus library, probably with the notion of trying to steal or deface a book or two—he couldn’t seem to remember exactly now, but probably to do something of the sort, something to make him feel more like himselfand less like the other self, the one that seemed like a version of Tristan borrowed by other people in order to suit their own purposes. At any rate, he was bent on making some sort of trouble, probably because he was a little drunk already, and the library, because it was quiet and secret, offered the sort of trouble he seemed to be looking for, which was quiet and secret trouble, the kind of trouble that would only be known to himself, that would have no consequences outside of his own head, that wouldn’t keep him from graduating.
The trouble he found there was Liza Hatter, a girl from his political science class. He found her in the second-floor read ing area, wearing shorts and a sleeveless top that showed her long limbs to advantage, thumbing through the latest issue of Lucky magazine, bored, killing time, her flip-flop sandals click ing softly on the floor. Liza Hatter had a thing for him, Tristan happened to know, in the same way he almost always knew, was almost never wrong, almost never made a false move or assumption when it came to love, or sex, or however you wanted to refer to it, as if Tristan cared one way or another, the object generally being the same.
In Liza Hatter’s case, it hadn’t been difficult at all to figure out, the signs having been there from the first day of spring semester when he walked into the classroom, and readily apparent on the few occasions when he had run across her in the downtown bars of Moscow, Idaho, and readily apparent now, also, here in the library, the darting eyes and flickering lashes and the rising color in the neck and cheeks, particularly noticeable because Liza Hatter had a pale complexion inclined to a ruddiness that matched her auburn hair, and the nervous agitation of the fingers flipping the magazine pages, and the feet shuffling constantly in the sandals. Tristan had long ago noticed the signs, but he had up to now filed Liza Hatter away for future reference, labeled her as a girl who would do in a pinch, never feeling any urgency in connection with her due to a) her obvious and therefore not very interesting availabil ity, as it was always more gratifying to have to wade through a layer of subtle oppositions to get to the ultimate goal, and b) the fact that, from Tristan’s perspective, she lacked the one quality he valued most highly in the opposite sex, that being a pretty face. She was no dog, certainly, and in fact her high cheekbones and widely spaced greenish eyes and rather full lips and her svelteness and her prodigious height—she was easily five-ten, almost as tall as Tristan—qualified her as hot, a term which Tristan detested but also knew applied in this case, at least where other guys would be concerned. But not so much for Tristan, who found her looks a bit over-refined, a bit cold and aloof, very similar in fact to the pictures of the women in the magazine she thumbed through, and none of the women in the pictures met with his particular approval. No, he’d rather have a good, buxom country girl any day, which was a good thing when you’d grown up in Idaho, where there were plenty available. But as noted, the shorts and blouse Liza Hatter wore in the library accentuated the positive, and there wasn’t any other action around at the moment, the idea of stealing or defacing books having receded all of a sudden, and Tristan was definitely in a pinch.
He had moved out of his apartment in Moscow the week before, back to Garnet Lake, where he was renting a duplex with money he’d inherited from his grandfather, who, in Tristan’s view, had been a lunatic, full all the way up to his white hairline with patriotic zeal and religious nonsense, but who had also been filthy rich and very kind to him, so that he felt badly in his less charitable moments toward him. But now he was back in Moscow for one night only, by himself, having talked his parents and his two older sisters out of coming down for his graduation by threatening not to walk in the ceremony if they attended, claiming it was a waste of time and effort on their part, but for no better reason really than that he hoped to get laid one more time in Moscow before returning to his home town, where the selection of women was more limited and less interesting, although he hadn’t entirely admitted his motives to himself. But with the apartment unavailable, the apartment in which he’d had sex with so many girls that it had become almost embarrassing, more for the girls themselves than for him, because he had started to feel toward the end that they probably should have known better, he had no place to sleep for the night, and had either to crash in the car, fall back on the hospitality of one friend or another whom he didn’t really want to see, or find a girl to shack up with, which was, of course, Plan A. And Liza Hatter was looking like a good candidate.
It had taken virtually no coaxing whatsoever to get her out of the library, where she had come simply to escape the heat, an unusual heat for Idaho in the middle of May, and over to her apartment, where she drank margaritas and he drank beer. And it took only two margaritas to prompt from Liza Hatter the sort of confession that Tristan dreaded hearing—that she had been infatuated with him for months now, and not only that, but her roommates, too, who would both be so jealous when they found out, which, as it happened, they never would, or at least Tristan would soon come to hope not.
Liza Hatter had in mind for the evening something she called “nesting,” which involved a trip to the grocery store to get more beer and margarita mix, and a trip to the video store to pick up movies. By the time she’d reached the part about “cuddling on the couch” Tristan had begun to grow bored, and he hated boredom more than anything else, probably because it was the state at which he arrived more often than not when he was with other people, because when it came right down to it he didn’t find people all that interesting, as they all seemed more or less to have the same kind of thoughts, perform the same sort of actions, very little variation occurring between the experience he had with one person or group of people and the next, and this was disturbing to him, because he was a con scientious person in the large ways and the deep ways if not in the small and everyday, and so wanted to think of himself as someone who tried to be helpful, someone who cared, even while he realized that he wasn’t very helpful and usually didn’t care, at least not until long after the fact, so that he passed up new opportunities for helping or caring due to his preoccupa tion with the missed opportunities of yesterday or the month before or last year. Right then, in fact, he was thinking about a girl named Kelly Ashton whom he had slept with last weekend at his parents’ lake house and never called afterward, which was more than a little puzzling to Tristan, since he had been in love with Kelly Ashton as far back as junior high. He mulled this one over, this surprising lack of feeling for Kelly Ashton, while Liza Hatter ticked off in an excited voice the potential choices of new releases on DVD, and in thinking of last week end Tristan’s mind got settled on the lake house for some reason, and a potential avenue for escaping his increasing boredom started to take shape, an avenue that seemed to offer the possibility of at least being able to tolerate the several-hour prelude to sex with Liza Hatter, and so he laid out to Liza this plan—grab a twelve-pack and make the three-hour trip to the lake house, spend the night there, come back the next morning for his graduation.
Thirty minutes later they were driving north on Highway 95 out of Moscow. It was from this point on, Tristan decided over and over again in the following weeks, that he had been home free. Of greater concern to him were the meeting at the library, the entry to and exit from her apartment, the stop at the convenience store for beer and snacks, although she hadn’t gone inside with him.
Of the trip to Garnet Lake Tristan had very little memory, a not uncommon problem for him since the events of that night, the very last event of which his mind dwelt on obsessively, so that the time following the event and the time preceding the event, the rest of his whole life, in other words, seemed to be shoved aside in either direction, like the waves that constituted a boat’s wake, until like those waves they had diffused and disappeared.
He remembered the familiar landscape better than the con versation. He remembered that Liza Hatter had begun to talk, and that he had begun not to listen, because to listen, to really pay attention, would have been to become that other self, the one that smiled and nodded, the one that seemed to be on loan to someone else, the one that had completed his four years of college education, the one that had tried for years to please his parents and succeeded very well in doing so, the one that had made him popular, admired, and envied by virtually everyone he’d been around every day for the last half-dozen years, so that he felt a huge chunk of his life had been used up by this other self on loan to these other people, answering their demands, giving pleasantry for pleasantry, joke for joke, sage advice for the asking, while the self he wanted to be and felt most com fortable with, the self that thought and acted boldly, erratically, somewhat dangerously on certain occasions, was a private self that had not gotten all it asked for, ever, and could seldom go about its business unhindered, and it was that self, there in the car, that tried to shake loose from Liza Hatter’s conversation, sought escape through the windows into the woods and the wheat fields, the fireworks stands and the casinos on the res ervations, the dusty streets and violent taverns of the reserva tion towns themselves, and then later, after it had turned dark, into a little game that this self liked to play, and in which Liza Hatter had joined to the best of Tristan’s recollection, a game that involved leaving the brights on and drinking from a whis key bottle, kept always under the seat for this purpose, each time another driver on the lonely highway flashed them, which was often enough that Tristan felt fairly dizzy by the time they pulled off the highway and onto the road to the lake house.
The details of the ten-mile drive from the turnoff to the lake house at Garfield Bay presented themselves to Tristan’s memory more clearly, as if in moving closer to the event things became sharper due to their proximity, like a kind of foreshad owing, or maybe just the opposite, that the event itself in its startling vividness had shone a light backward over the pre ceding hour. Even now, warming up for dart night at the 321, thinking about how Russell Harmon had been in the john for such a long time and what sort of drugs he had in his posses sion and whether he might be willing to share, because some thing like that might help him relax, he could recall the sight of the lake that night as they drove, visible through the cedar trees, sparkling with moonlight. He could recall also how the night had turned colder, how the wind curled in through the open window and helped to sober him as he took the wind ing turns, how from the stereo Mick Jagger had sneered his way through “Midnight Rambler.” And he could recall the con versation then, too, or not so much his own words, if there had been any, but Liza Hatter spilling out her life to him as she had been for the last three hours, poor dizzy Liza Hatter, dumber than a post, dumber even than Russell Harmon with his dart league and his score sheets and his puffed-up pride in his trivial abilities.
Liza Hatter, he recalled, had talked for several minutes about her plans to switch her major to veterinary science. She had already begun to take courses in preparation for the switch, and although she was sure she’d made the right decision because she just loved animals so much, she had been disturbed by a class in which her professor dissected a dog, and Tristan hadn’t felt much but disdain for her at the time, disdain for her squeamishness at the opening of the sternum and the exami nation of the viscera, disdain for her sentimentality and lack of professional rigor, for her teary-eyed assertion that “this was someone’s best friend, this was once someone’s little puppy.” It seemed pretty nigh hopeless for Liza Hatter ever to become a veterinarian, but he allowed her to believe in his sympathy and understanding even while he was starting to hate her a little. And yet this conversation came back to him now daily, hourly, with a kind of poignant irony.
They arrived at the lake house. They carried their things inside. He searched through his parents’ CD collection, which wasn’t much to shout about, and put a Ray Charles disc in the player, the old Ray Charles stuff from the time when he still wrote his own songs and hadn’t yet become a clown. He showed her around the house, listened to her ooh and aah at the view of the lake from the tall windows, a view which he could have appreciated more himself if he’d been in the house alone. They sat out on the deck and drank beer and Liza Hatter scooted in close to him and kissed him and he lit a cigarette, because he didn’t want to kiss her then, was still finding her slightly repugnant, even despite the perfume she’d dabbed on in the upstairs bathroom.
It was her idea to go skinny-dipping. He agreed reluctantly, bored, bored, bored with the predictability of the suggestion but agreeing to play along, and preparing himself already for the iciness of the water at this time of year, an iciness that he knew would surprise her and probably send her swimming frantically back to the dock as soon as she’d dived in, so that he could escape for a few minutes and swim out into the lake alone.
They stripped at the end of the dock. The moon was almost new, and even with the lights shining down on them from the house there was a swarm of stars. To left and right were the rocky cliffs of the cove, the pine trees rising up and up in the night air, whispering faintly in accompaniment to the music from the house. They were entirely alone, he and Liza Hatter, he had to keep reminding himself of that these days, that there were no houses close enough for anyone to see or hear. Liza Hatter stood before him naked, as if she were backlit on a thrust stage. The long legs, the auburn hair, the coy smile, the soft and rather dainty breasts, the thin line of dark pubic hair—again he found something unsatisfying about her looks, and wished he’d had the patience to wait around longer for someone else.
"You know what I like about you?" she said.
He told her no, he didn't.
"You’re so calm and quiet,” she said. “It makes me feel safe."
And that pleased him, because he had cultivated for a long time a calm and quiet outward appearance, all the way back to art class in junior high school when he sat next to Kelly Ashton, quiet then because he was too shy to talk and not much worth looking at, an exceedingly skinny kid with a mouthful of metal braces and a fairly bad case of acne, and Kelly Ashton had told him much the same thing one day that Liza Hatter had just told him now, that she liked how he was confident enough not to have to make noise all the time like the other guys, and right then he had decided that, if Kelly Ashton liked it, this calm and quiet thing was worth looking into, especially since he had the quiet part down already and could master the calm part over time.
So he was feeling a little more kindly toward Liza Hatter as he ambled toward the dock, unselfconscious of his body because he knew women liked it, and dove easily into the water, counting away the freezing seconds as he went underneath, saying to himself a thousand one a thousand two a thousand three as a way to get through the part where the cold went to the bone and then could start to work its way out again. When his head popped above the surface he heard a splash behind him, and then just seconds later a high squeal and Liza Hatter saying, “Oh my God oh my God, it’s freezing,” and he smiled, knowing he had been right, that she would retreat as fast as she could to the dock and probably run to the house for a towel. So he went under again, pulling with long strokes against the water, and he started thinking in Spanish, which he did occasionally—agua fria, agua negra—and when he came up he let out his breath and shook the hair from his eyes and started swimming in long strokes out into the lake, thinking lago oscuro, una noche de estrellas.
He could not recall hearing anything as he swam, nothing other than his own sounds and the music still audible over the water, Ray Charles singing faintly “A Fool for You,” and he allowed himself to enjoy the thin sliver of moon high in the sky and the way it was reflected in the tiny waves always just ahead of him, and he thought he could go on swimming like this for hours, though he was already numb under the water.
Then he heard her say, “Tristan.” And he heard her actually laugh a little, a nervous laugh, a shy laugh, as if she realized she’d been caught doing something stupid. He turned to her in the water, saw she had followed him all the way out, was maybe fifty feet or so behind him, the dock and the house a long way back, the cliffs of the cove actually closer on either side, he noticed quickly, because he knew what was wrong even before she said so, was already calculating the difficulty of paddling to the rocky bank with her arms around his neck. “Tristan,” she said again, with a desperate edge to her voice this time. “Tristan, I’m out too far. I can’t feel my legs.”
And quietly, calmly, he began swimming back to her. He came closer, closer, close enough to see her now clearly, and when he was within several feet of her, he stopped. He could see her try to come toward him, but she managed only a kind of rough, jerking motion, and she went in up to her forehead and then lifted her face again, choking and coughing. She man aged to say the word once more—“Tristan?”—the last thing she ever said to him. He was perhaps two arm-lengths away, treading water, watching her intently. Because something had happened to her face. The moonlight shone on her directly, and he could see the water in her dark hair and on her cheeks, and her mouth opened and closed in little gasps. Her green eyes were huge, almost glowing. In the black irises, he could see the white crescent of the moon. Very pretty, he thought. He could even love her, maybe, if she looked that way all the time. But then she went under the water, softly, and did not come up again.
Standing back on the dock, naked under the stars and shiv ering, he could still see her pretty face almost perfectly, as if it hovered near the moon.
Both The Dart League King and your previous novel, The Greyhound God, seem to draw heavily on place—the local dialects, habits and particularities of the people. Has place always been an important part of building your characters?
I don’t start with place, really, at least not intentionally. I’m much more likely at the outset to be thinking character, plot, theme, language, structure. I end up setting most of my fiction in Idaho because I realize that, when it comes time to start writing the scenes, that’s where I see them happening in my head, back in my old hometown. And the characters tend to act and speak like people back in Idaho, etc.—it’s really more a function of how my imagination works than anything else.
Your writing tends to focus on the underdog, the little guy. Do you tend to gravitate toward characters like that?
I read somewhere that Richard Yates once said he felt that his whole career had been an ongoing attempt to defend the underdog, or words to that effect. I feel the same way. I didn’t grow up around people who had money and attended private schools. Most of my friends were from blue-collar families, and, of my really close friends, only one ended up graduating from college. Much of what I write is an attempt to convey my feelings about the town I lived in and the people I knew there—I try to make readers see that the lives of people in out-of-the-way towns in the middle of nowhere are every bit as important and interesting as the lives of people anywhere else.
There are elements of Faulkner—another Mississippi native—in your writing, and you’ve said that the structure of The Dart League King was inspired by As I Lay Dying. Still this work is firmly grounded in the west. Do you feel a particular kinship with the writers of either region? How do you see your experience in those two parts of the country affecting your work?
I’ve often had people try to call me a Southern writer, but I just don’t see how. I was born in the South, all of my extended family is in the South, and I’ve lived in the South almost half my life, but I almost never write about the South and the subject of my books or stories is rarely anything that could be considered Southern. It’s not that the South doesn’t interest me—just that, from the time that I started to feel some distance from it at the age of 9 or 10, it’s never really seemed like my home, and the lifestyle and the politics of most of the South is pretty alien to me. It’s also more interesting to write about Idaho because not many fiction writers have done it—aside from Marilynne Robinson’sHousekeeping, there hasn’t been a whole lot of fiction about Idaho that’s reached a wide audience. Writing about Idaho seems like something worth trying to do—the South is adequately represented without my assistance.
What writers are important to you, and your development as a fiction writer?
You’ve mentioned Faulkner already. Other fiction writers I’d add to the list would be Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Knut Hamsun, Garcia Marquez, Cormac McCarthy, John Barth, Marilynne Robinson, Don Delillo, Kobo Abe, Thomas Hardy, Jean Giono, Fitzgerald, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Borges, Woolf, Barthelme, Naipaul, Dreiser, Camus—aaaggh!—I could go on jumping around like that forever. I think when I hear sentence rhythms in my head I’m most influenced by two poets, actually—T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. It might be a purely internal thing, something only I can hear, but the rhythm of my prose often has some sort of grounding in their rhythms, seems to me.
Along with the two novels, you’ve published a collection of short fiction, The Best Seats in the House. When you sit down to write, how is the process different in crafting stories and novels? When do you know which form the writing will take, and how did you decide that The Dart League King would work as longer piece?
Honestly, a lot of times I don’t know whether I’m writing a story or a novel until something definitive happens with the pacing. Sometimes I’ll have a suspicion that I’m writing a 20-page story and three pages into it I’ll realize I’m halfway done. The Dart League King was just the opposite—I thought I could handle Russell’s story (it was originally supposed to be a short story called “Russell’s Thursday Night”) in about five or six thousand words, but what happened was that all these other characters and situations began to crowd in. I found I couldn’t write just a few lines about Russell’s angry drug dealer or his ex-girlfriend or his opponent in the dart league championship—I kept being pulled back into their stories, and soon they became an equal or a nearly equal part of the whole and I had to discover a way to deal with them adequately. The movement and the structure of As I Lay Dying offered some clues about how to put it all together, and before long I saw I was writing a novel.
Let’s talk specifically about The Dart League King. There are five principle narrators with five very distinct voices. Were any of the voices more difficult to capture than others?
I’m glad that you’re referring to them as “voices,” because I intended the novel to read as if it incorporated multiple voices . . . but, since it’s third person, there’s really only one narrator. My intention was to try to capture the intimacy and idiosyncrasy of first person while maintaining the more observational quality of third. I wanted the reader to hear Vince Thompson speaking, for instance, even though it’s actually the narrator speaking for him, and to see him from the outside as well. If you envisioned it as a movie, you’d see the character filmed from an external point-of-view but you’d be hearing his thoughts in a voice-over. Not all that uncommon for film (think of a movie like Adaptationin which you hear Nicholas Cage’s voice constantly but at the same time are watching him sweat, squirm uncomfortably, etc.), but uncommon for fiction; in first person fiction, the perspective is always internal, while in third person there can be both internal and external, but the internal is rendered in the voice of the narrator and not of the character. I wanted the internal and the external happening simultaneously, so I had to resort to something a little unusual, which I suppose you could imagine as the narrator telling the story while imitating the voice and usage of the various characters. I’ve found that a lot of my “test” readers (friends and writers with whom I share manuscripts), after having put the novel away for awhile, begin to remember it as being written in first person. That makes me feel good—that’s what I was aiming for. As far as which “voices” were most difficult to capture—I really had the most trouble with Tristan, maybe because the language in which he thinks is closer to my own. That makes the character harder to invent. Vince was the easiest—once I found the exact pattern of his profanity and the level of his anger, he started blazing across the page pretty quickly. I had a lot of fun writing his sections.
Is there a character, or an attribute of a character, that you yourself identify with?
Well, I think you have to be able to identify with everything about the characters. I don’t think it’s possible to imagine something without some level of identification, is it? For me to imagine Vince Thompson wanting to stand up and shoot Russell Harmon in the 321 Club, I have to be able to identify that impulse—if not feel it myself then at least locate it and know where it might come from. You don’t have to be a murderer in order to be a writer, but you have to do your best to understand what being a murderer would feel like, and if you’re not willing to go there then your writing isn’t going to be convincing or effective. But in more direct response to your question . . . I probably identify with one element of Brice Habersham’s personality more than anything else in the novel—he wants things to work out logically and rationally and peacefully and cleanly, and they almost never do. Life always turns out to be messier than he had anticipated, even though his internal calculations are very finely tuned. He seems genuinely puzzled that things don’t always turn out like he planned, and I think I’m a bit like that myself.
I wouldn’t have expected to sympathize with several of the narrators—namely Vince, Tristan, and, to some extent, even Russell—but you slowly build compassion for them. Do you find it difficult to balance their obvious failings and shortcomings with a kind of likeability and humanity?
My belief is that almost all people are likeable if you get to know them well enough (Tristan notwithstanding). So when I’m working up a character like Vince, who’s repugnant initially, I trust that all I have to do is stay true to who I know he is, and the things that make him likeable and sympathetic will surface as the novel moves along. When you’re inside someone’s head, getting a chance to see them from the inside out, they always have a moment—Vince remembering the time he spent with an old girlfriend, Russell carefully considering the baby picture Kelly shows him, maybe even Tristan and his feelings of isolation and his brief moments of regret—in which the reader finds a connection.
There is an incredible amount of detail about the game of darts—you seem to know it well. Similarly, the vivid descriptions of the 321 Club suggest a real familiarity with that kind small town bar. Have you had your share of experience in front of the dartboard and on the barstool? How important to your fiction is being immersed in the subject matter?
Bars are my favorite places in the world. You never know what’s going to happen in a bar, and a lot of whatever does happen changes peoples’ lives. If I’d tried to set The Dart League King anywhere other than a small town bar, it wouldn’t have worked. Another great thing about bars is that the real story behind what’s going on is completely hidden from outsiders—if you were to walk into the middle of this novel, you probably wouldn’t notice a damn thing going on until the fight breaks out in the end. The fact that you’re a reader and it’s a novel grants you a privilege—you get an inside view of the insiders. You’re even more in the know than the characters who are in the know. I think that’s a good place for a novelist to try to reach, because readers are bound to feel that they’re being treated generously. And yes, I’ve spent plenty of time in bars and I’ve spent plenty of time throwing darts, though I’m not very good. I’m better at pool. But I was, in fact, the founder of my hometown dart league once upon a time.
1. Why do you think the author chose to use a third person point of view over a first person point of view? What difference does it make to the story?
2. How did the rotating perspectives affect your reading of The Dart League King?
3. Does the reader's opinion of the characters change considerably from start to finish? Who becomes more sympathetic? Who becomes less sympathetic? Why?
4. Is the "Epilogue" really an epilogue? Why is it set in the present tense while the rest of the novel is in the past tense? Wouldn't it typically be the opposite?
5. How does the town itself play a role in what happens?
6. What has been the characters' experience growing up in the town? Does the town have a positive or negative influence on the characters?
7. To what degree do the characters seem to control their destinies? What importance do their individual decisions have? To what degree are they influenced by the other characters? How important are external/random factors?
8. How are the central conflicts of the novel enacted? How much of the conflict would an uninformed observer at the 321 Club notice?