Reader’s Journal: The Dart League King

The Dart League King, by Keith Lee Morris, follows team members of a small town dart league on the night of the league championship. I first heard about this book in December of 2008 on the Emerging Writers Network blog. Just the short blurb in an end of year post made me add it to my TBR list and my Amazon wish list.

Over the last year or so, I had sort of forgotten about it. In fact, I’ve been busy reading things outside the sort of literary fiction I am very used to reading–this book, from its description, sounded much like my usual fare, an internal and quirky story about small-town eccentrics experiencing one relevant moment in their lives. Although I still like those sorts of stories, lately I have found them a bit claustrophobic, and even formulaic. I am more than happy to say that The Dart League King is neither, that it’s very much its own book, and even a bit genre bending in the best ways.

The story is told in third person, alternating points of view between five different characters: Russell Harmon, the self-proclaimed dart league king and founder of the dart league in Garnet Lake, Idaho; Tristan Mackey, Russell’s teammate; Vince Thompson, Russell’s dealer and sometimes friend; Kelly Ashton, Russell’s ex-girlfriend; and Brice Habersham, Russell’s dart-league nemesis and the man Russell must beat to keep his title. Each of these people has a secret; some secrets are worse, in a larger-than-life sense, than others. Morris does a terrific job of giving each of these characters a voice, and making them surprising in a way that makes the story both refreshing and troubling.

As I said, I expected a small, quirky story about a small-team dart league, but there are bigger things at stake. I didn’t expect suspense, but several of these people’s lives literally hang in the balance through the course of the story, and not everyone will have a happy ending. In a lot of ways, this is a story about luck, both good and bad, and about how the smallest decisions or errors in judgment can change the course of fate forever. That’s what good literature is all about in the end, I believe, and Morris does a fine job of showing the reader the significance of each of these people, and how nothing is too small in the big picture to make us wonder out loud about the role of fate in our lives, about how we become who we are, about the thread by which we all may (or may not) be hanging.

I wish I could tell you more, but there are so many plot elements, large and small, that I wouldn’t want to give away, because really: everything means something in this book. I don’t think Morris wasted a word. I highly recommend it.

Passages to whet your appetite:

Tonight was Thursday, and Thursday meant dart league, and Russell Harmon was the Dart League King. For that reason, and for others, Thursday night was Russell’s favorite time of the week. His least favorite time of the week was Friday morning, when he would have to step down from his role as founder/commissioner/team captain/individual champion two years running of the Garnet Lake Dart League and resume his job on a logging crew, a type of work for which he was unenthusiastic and ill-suited.

She showed him blenders and microwave ovens and silverware, dinette sets and sofas, bed frames and draperies. Most of what she suggested, he purchased. She was not friendly, but neither was she impolite. The same age as Brice Habersham, he would later learn, she was not pretty, but neither was she unattractive–straight brown hair very neatly cut, a thin, rather nervous body, a plain face with regular features, tiny hands and feet. She didn’t look like the love of anyone’s life. Maybe, in some way, it was the setting. Brice Habersham watched her move through the simulated environment of a home. She was dour and solemn and timid and somehow sad, and that also helped. She struck him as someone who would not judge his careful ways too harshly.

Which left Russell Harmon with one dart in his hand. 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 candlelight, blond twists of a small girl’s hair, and before Russell Harmon had time even for the lowering of his hand he saw…

And there across the bridge, backing away from the light, moving out of the yellow glow into the safety of darkness, was Vince Thompson, both arms held out in front of him, pointing a large handgun toward Russell on the bridge. How strange it was that the world outside his own quick breathing, his thrumming heart, in the night breeze beyond his windshield, out there suspended above the water, lit like a Hopper painting and swirling to the musician’s tune he still heard somewhere in his head, there should be this other story going on, and that the characters should be people he knew.

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4 comments

  1. I remember reading about this one last year when it was in the Tournament of Books. Despite all the praise, the premise didn’t appeal to me, so I didn’t bother seeking it out (also, I don’t think our local library had a copy). Your review makes me think maybe I was too hasty to dismiss it, since I love books that defy genre conventions.

  2. Steph, to be honest, if I had thought about it I would have probably replaced it with one of a hundred other books on the wish list, but I am so glad I didn’t. I read it to get it out of the way, thinking “Well, this’ll be the standard trek through lit. fiction and easy to get through quickly.” I am so happy now that I didn’t take it of the list–it was different than I expected, and so much better.

  3. I love alternating viewpoints! This sounds great – it’s brilliant when authors are able to raise the emotional stakes of something that, on the outside, doesn’t seem like it would be terribly important.

  4. Jenny, that’s exactly right. I was so happily surprised by that fact in this book…I think that’s the thing that has been driving me away from literary fiction lately. It seems to rely too heavily on being quirky or ironic. Morris lends humor to his characters, but even the ones who at first seem like they might be types turn out to be real people, with their own very real, sincere concerns.

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