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December 5, 2008

Book Notes - Keith Lee Morris ("The Dart League King")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

In The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris creates an impressive vision of small-town life through . Smartly written and darkly suspenseful, the novel has me anticipating reading more from Keith Lee Morris.

Brock Clarke wrote of the book:

"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."

In his own words, here is Keith Lee Morris's Book Notes essay for his novel, The Dart League King:

The Dart League King deals with five characters hanging around a small-town Idaho bar on the night of the league dart championship (there’s also sex and drugs and violence for those of you so inclined, plus a healthy dose of mystery and an examination of fate, a look at how the smallest actions, those you might not even see if you’re not watching closely enough, can have the greatest significance). I’m going to give each of the characters a few representative musical selections, throw in a song for a few selected minor characters, and toss in a few general choices that might have something to do with the book in some way.

Russell Harmon is The Dart League King. He can listen to whatever he wants to, and frankly he’s never given it much thought. His tastes were pretty much determined by what his mother and his Uncle Roy played on the radio when he was growing up, which basically means he’s a classic rock kind of guy:

“Do Ya” by The Electric Light Orchestra—Russell thinks this is a bitching song and I have to agree. More cowbell, please.

“Kashmir” by Led Zeppelin—If there were, like, an infinite number of universes and all of those universes had their own rock and roll and all the songs of those universes stretched out forever and ever to the end of time, this song would still be the coolest. And it sounds really good when you crank it in the truck. Check out those new speakers.

Sometimes Russell likes to go for a softer sound, mostly to impress babes--“If You Can Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot is in heavy rotation when this mood strikes. Excellent choice, Russell. Russell knows the lyrics are deep, but he’s still not absolutely sure he gets them—what’s the deal about the old time movie with the ghost and the “castle dark or fortress strong” (why are the words switched around—shouldn’t it be “dark castle,” for instance? “Strong fortress”?) and “chains upon his feet. “ Hmm.

Tristan Mackey is the most popular guy in town, back on the scene with his good looks and his freshly-minted college degree, but there are some really ugly undercurrents here, as more than one character will learn. On the plus side, he is a music fan.

Tristan spends a lot of time at his parents’ lake house, and so is at the mercy of their music collection much of the time. The only artist in his mother and father’s possession that he likes is Ray Charles—let’s go with “Drown In My Own Tears.”

Tristan is definitely a Spoon fan, for much the same reasons I am—spare, tight, a little bit quirky but highly melodic pop tunes with a bit of a dark edge—can’t beat it. “I Summon You” from Gimme Fiction suits Tristan.

Got to include something by one of my favorite songwriters, Joe Pernice. His first band, The Scud Mountain Boys, has a great Tristan tune, “Big Hole”—“It builds me up to kill things that I love/and drop ‘em down in a deep hole.”

“Coyote” by Joni Mitchell—Tristan is the guy Joni warns you about here.
“Starman” by David Bowie—There’s a definite “star” motif going on in the book, and Tristan is more than a little out there in space, so this Bowie song works.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Lie Down Here (and Be My Girl)”—Title says it all here. Those of you who’ve read the book know what I mean.

Kelly Ashton is a former small-town heartthrob who’s now a single mother, just beginning to test out the dating waters once again, catching up on old times with Russell and getting caught up into some bad stuff with Tristan, who’s in a very strange, detached mood.

Cat Power, “Fool”—“It’s not that it’s bad/It’s not that it’s death/ It’s just that it’s on the tip of your tongue/ And you’re so silent.”
Neko Case, “Star Witness”—I listened to Neko Case a lot while I was finishing up the novel. This song is particularly appropriate. “There’s such deadly wolves ‘round town tonight.”
Headlights, “On April 2”—I was listening to this song right at the very end of the editing process, and it had something to do with Kelly in the last scene, I think. Pretty song with something a little autumnal underneath.

Vince Thompson, (or Vince f*cking Thompson, as he likes to think of himself) is, at least on the surface, a very angry, very scary, 42-year-old drug dealer out to collect a debt from Russell on the night in question.

Vince is a fan of be-bop (he likes to refer to Miles Davis and John Coltrane as “kick-ass mother f*ckers”), but he’s actually a little quieter and mellower than he lets on, and at the end of a long night like the one in the novel he would appreciate Thelonius Monk’s sweetly off-kilter version of “My Melancholy Baby,” recorded in London in 1971, one of his final sessions ever.

If Vince had a stand-in or body double, it would probably be Tom Waits. The spoken word growl of “Ninth and Hennepin” could be the soundtrack to Vince’s life. Tom Waits at his skid row best. “It was Ninth and Hennepin/All the donuts had names that sound like prostitutes” . . . “The girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear/One for every year he’s away, she says/Such a crumbling beauty/Aww, there’s nothing wrong with her a hunnerd dollars won’t fix.”

Vince spends a lot of time feeling sorry for himself. The ultimate sad sack (and just plain sad, really) pop song of all time is Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again, Naturally.” If you’re too young or your memory is faulty, dredge this one up on iTunes. You won’t know whether to laugh or cry, seriously.
The Rolling Stones, “Stray Cat Blues”—the Stones in downright nasty mode. Vince f*cking Thompson at his best.

Brice Habersham is a former professional dart player who’s recently moved to town. He has secrets to rival Tristan’s, though of a completely different type. His tastes run from classical to early rock n’ roll. One of the most traumatic events in his life occurred during the year the Beatles came to America, so he remembers that time with both nostalgia and dread.

The Beatles, “For No One”—saddest song in the Beatles catalog, for my money.
The Beach Boys, “God Only Knows”—Ok, obvious pick, I know, but it’s gotta be on the list for Brice and his wife, Helen.
Beethoven, “The Moonlight Sonata”—disciplined, precise, moody, austere—tailor-made for Brice Habersham.

Matt Tarver is Russell’s best friend and also employs Russell on his logging crew. I used to know a guy in north Idaho who never listened to anything on his truck’s cassette deck but Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley. I picture Matt that way, but with a little better taste. Matt would listen to awesome country classics like Roger Miller’s “Engine Engine #9”—“Engine, engine #9/Rollin’ down that railroad line/How much farther back did she get off?/ Old brown suitcase that she carried/I’ve looked for it everywhere, it/Just ain’t here among the rest/and I’m a little upset, yes.”

Liza Hatter is another character who would have done better to steer clear of Tristan. Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl” reminds me of her and what happens to her with T. Weirdly sweet, innocent, and creepy all at once. And you’ve got to like a song that repeats the lyrics “Drive that car/Drop that phone/Sleep on the floor/Dream about me” for well over a minute without any variation whatsoever.

The Musician is a friend of Tristan’s who’s teaching him how to play guitar. He’s based partly on a buddy of mine, Charley Packard, who, if there were any justice in the world, you’d know already. He’s a Kansan by way of California who arrived in my Idaho hometown 30-something years ago with some other musician friends. I love his song “Give Me an Old Gal,” which would have been a hit if Willie Nelson had ever had sense enough to record it (Charley opened for Willie Nelson once upon a time). “Don’t want no schoolgirl drinking Dubonnet on the rocks/No tellin’ where she’s never been./ I’ll take a lady hanging ‘round the docks/Just waiting for her ship to come in./ Someone who knows how/Someone who shows how/And never locks the door/Give me an old gal who’s been around the block before.” Can you hear Willie singing that, or what? You can check out several versions of the song at (my favorite is either the original, on Charley Packard, or the newer version with just Charley, his guitar, and his harmonica on Designated Driver). To really get the full effect, though, you need to hear Charley play it in a dim, smoky bar—but for that you’ll have to go to Sandpoint, Idaho.

My pal Brock Clarke credited me for one of his selections when he did Book Notes, so I’m returning the favor. He introduced me to Destroyer. How about “To the Heart of the Sun on the Back of the Vulture, I’ll Go” from the Thief cd.

And one last one. In the hope that there are better times ahead for Russell Harmon and his daughter, I’ll let the closing credits roll with “This Will Be Our Year” by The Zombies, one of the nicest songs I know.

Keith Lee Morris and The Dart League King links:

the author's Wikipedia entry
the book's page at the publisher
excerpt from the book

The Book Pirate review
Collected Miscellany
Dartoid's World review
Maud Newton review
Mostly Fiction review
Open Letters review
Portland Mercury review
Slog review
Clemson Your Day interview with the author
Collected Miscellany interview with the author
Fictionaut interview with the author
Five Chapters short fiction by the author
Mormar interview with the author
The Page 69 Test for the book
Powell's Books interview with the author
Publisher's Weekly interview with the author
Willamette Week interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Online "Best Books of 2008" Lists
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Why Obama (musicians and authors explain their support of the Democratic presidential candidate's campaign)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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