The Dart League King by Keith Lee Morris

The Dart League KingI am not sure what it is, but something about Tin House books grabs my attention; they seem to stand out from many of the other books that come my way.  I enjoyed Salvation by Lucia Nevai and Girl Factory by Jim Krusoe So when I heard about The Dart League King, I figured it was worth my time to check it out.

I was right. It turned out to be a compelling read.  Allow the folks at PW to summarize the plot:

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.

Alternating chapters are written from the perspective of each of these characters and as the night progresses they each fill in the backstories that brought them to this point.

As Maud Newton pointed out, there is a fear that such a novel “written in close third person, with alternating chapters from alternating perspectives” might produce “utterly plotless stories that drift from one unsympathetic character to another and culminate in wishy-washy epiphanies.”  But Morris avoids this pitfall and actually produces a story with both compelling characters and a suspenseful plot.

For more of my thoughts on this, see below.

The underlying concept is rather familiar: the feeling of being trapped and unable to break free of the choices and patterns that have made up your environment your whole life.  But Morris avoids cliche and caricature and his characters have depth and unique voices within the story.

Each of the characters have some rather obvious flaws, but they are also sympathetic – with the possible exception of Tristan Mackey – because they are so human.  Even if our circumstances are different we can all relate to and understand how out – often well intentioned – choices lead to a path of disappoint and regret.  We also understand the kind of lies we all tell ourselves to rationalize our faults or poor choices.

Morris skillfully builds the story through these alternating chapters. Each character helps fill out the picture of not only how each of them got to the bar that night but the emotional baggage they bring to the intertwined relationships.  The characters seem like a person you might actually meet; as if you could go to Idaho and actually meet them and recognize them from the story.

Morris also ratchets up the tension by introducing both emotional and physical danger.  Each character faces choices about how they are going to live their life going forward; if they are finally going to come to grips with the past and make better choices.  But outside events also threaten to intervene with tragic results no matter their best intentions.  As the characters face their internal demons they also face dangers in real life; sometimes without their knowing it.

Once Morris sets the scene and introduces the characters, the tension – with an impending sense of doom – really grows.  Instead of interrupting the plot and slowing down the story, the alternating perspectives increase the suspense as each story thread comes together and builds toward a climax.  By the last third you are feverishly reading to find out what is going to happen.

The chapters tend to leave you hanging and rather than providing a nice stopping spot that would tempt you to put the book down they instead act like a sling shot that has you diving into the next chapter to find out what is going to happen.

As noted above Tristan Mackey is something of a unique character and his story (and perspective) drive much of the tension and adds an element of both mystery and creepiness.  He is a deeply unsettling character.

If there was a frustration, however, it is how the story ends.  I am not sure I could come up with a more satisfying, and equally plausible, ending but I wish it didn’t end with so much seemingly unsettled.  Morris skillfully builds the tension and brings us to the point of no return and then leaves us guessing; or at least leaves certain actions off page.  I understand why Morris did what he did, but it also left me a little frustrated at the end.

This is a minor quibble, however, as 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
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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