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May 7, 2010

Book Notes - Keith Lee Morris ("Call It What You Want")

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

Ever since I read Keith Lee Morris's novel The Dart League King a couple of years ago, I have been anxiously awaiting his next book. In Call it What You Want, Morris asserts himself as a master of the short story with 13 tales that range from realistic to surrealistic. With wit and candor, these stories explore the intersection of dreams and everyday life.

Ron Rash wrote of the collection:

"In less capable hands, these stories of hardscrabble lives could become sentimentalized or condescending, but Keith Lee Morris is too talented, too empathetic, to allow that to happen. Though his characters are often in extremis, their humanity is always fully realized. These characters, and the stories they tell us, haunt the reader long after the last page is turned, as only the best stories do."

In his own words, here is Keith Lee Morris's Book Notes music playlist for his short story collection, Call it What You Want:

Call it What You Want is a collection of 13 stories that, insofar as it can be said to have a coherent movement or structure, traces a line from straight realism into what I'd like to call dream fiction—stories in which what's real within the world of the story may or may not bear any resemblance to what we think of as real in our world. The further you move into the collection, the more things operate according to dream logic—there is a structure, there is a texture, you just don't always know what to think of it or what to call it . . . hence the title.

So—thirteen stories, thirteen songs, no particular rhyme or reason:

1) The first story, "Testimony," takes place in my hometown of Sandpoint, Idaho, though it's actually based on a murder trial in South Carolina, where I live now. I was jury foreman. A man killed his wife after the two of them spent months doing crystal meth. It was a sad, sad case, and for a long time I didn't think I could write about it at all. Then I started thinking about the witnesses—how in some cases they've known either the victim or the accused or both for most of their lives, and are in some way intimately connected to the victim's death, and yet are whisked in to tell their tales and then whisked out unceremoniously, as if they've got no investment in the thing other than to lay out a few facts. So I invented a murder case of my own, chose one witness as the point-of-view character, and tried to tell, through his testimony, the story of his relationship to the victim, a kid named Jeremy who used to dream of being a jet pilot when he and the main character were kids. The two characters reminded me a great deal of me and a friend of mine in Idaho, Mike Demers, when we were 13 or so. We used to hang out at each other's houses and listen to records for what seemed like days on end. Our favorite then was Elton John. This is, like, 1975, when Elton John was it. Between the two of us, we had every Elton John album and single there ever was. So let's go with "Rocket Man" to start off the playlist. Jeremy would like that.

2) "Camel Light"—This story is about a guy who finds a cigarette under his dishwasher one morning. He starts to imagine how the cigarette got there—no one in his family smokes—and eventually goes from suspecting that his wife is having an affair to deciding that the planet would be better off if the human race were eradicated. He's really just a regular middle-class guy, though, who's chiefly worried about his neighbors and his lawn and his wife's fidelity, so the perfect song for him, I think, from one of my favorite albums of all time, is the title track from Wilco's late 90s album Summerteeth. "He feels lucky/to have you here/ in the kitchen/in your chair/Sometimes he forgets that you're even there/ It's just a dream he keeps having/and it doesn't seem to mean anything."

3) "What I Want from You"—This is the most depressing story I've ever written. I don't even want to go into it except to say that it involves the death of small animals and children, and would have involved the death of even more small animals except the editors at Tin House made me take out the dead kitten scene. My first thought regarding a song to go along with this story was that it would have to be the most depressing song ever written in the history of the world. But then I changed my mind and decided that, Jesus Christ, the poor mother who's the main character could use a break, something really nice to listen to that would make her feel a whole lot better, so I'll choose "Blue Eyes" by Gram Parsons when he was with the International Submarine Band.

4) "Guests"—This story is based on some of the stuff that went on when I worked as a bellman in New Orleans in the mid 1980s, one of my favorite periods in my life. The main characters, Dave and Beebo, want to be musicians. Thinking of music and New Orleans reminds me . . . well, God knows, it reminds me of many things . . . but it reminds me right at this second of how my friend Tim Bable and I used to go to this bar called Benny's on Valence St. to hear the house band, JD and the Jammers. It was a sketchy bar in a sketchy neighborhood. It was actually an old garage or something, and you had to watch the band through a wall or window that had been knocked out of the original structure. They had beer to sell you out of a washtub filled with ice—I think you could get Budweiser or Dixie. One night we went in there and JD—who looked a lot like Jimi Hendrix—and the other band members were going crazy with some really funky groove that I swear sounded familiar. I listened for a few minutes and then asked Tim if it didn't sound familiar. He looked at me like I was nuts. "It's fucking ‘Down by the River' by Neil Young," he said to me. And it was. But you've never heard it played the way JD and the Jammers played it back when I was still a kid in the mid-1980s in New Orleans, at Benny's bar on Valence Street.

5) "Ayudame"—This story is about a guy who wishes he'd been born a couple decades earlier so that he could have owned a record store in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. Things don't turn out so well for him, so I'm thinking I need a 60s anthem with a darker edge, and nobody was better with the dark side of psychedelia than the southern California group Love. Let's go with the epic closer to their Forever Changes album, "You Set the Scene." Arthur Lee, the group's leader, loved to veer toward the existential: "Where are you walking?/I've seen you walking./ Have you been there before?/ Walk down your doorstep/You'll take some more steps/What do you take them for?"

6) "Harmonica"—Guy steals a motorcycle and goes into a bar and someone gives him a harmonica as a gift. Then he gets caught for stealing the bike before he has a chance to play the harmonica. Again, things don't turn out well. But the harmonica is cool. For this story, let's go with my favorite song featuring the harmonica prominently, Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You."

7) "Visitation"—This is about the point in the collection when the stories start to take a decidedly strange turn. Here, a guy's mother dies during church, and he runs home to find a skinny kid robbing his house. They get into two violent altercations, in between which they watch tv. I have no idea why, but for this story, I'm going with Swedish singer Frida Hyvonen and her song "Come Another Night," which is this awesome piano and horn-backed tune that sounds like someone woke Petula Clark from the dead, or maybe channeled Claudine Longet—and Frida, like Claudine, sounds like she would shoot you if you weren't on your best behavior (remember Claudine? Spider Sabich? Or am I just older than everyone else?). In fact she says so: "I might just shoot you and then ask you to stand up and run/Dare me, dare me, dare me." Frida, hey--watch where you're pointing that thing.

8) "Tired Heart"—During the summer of 1998 or 1999 or somewhere in there I drove by myself from South Carolina to Louisiana up to Wisconsin and over to Idaho and then down to Wyoming and then back across the country to Virginia. I started to hallucinate by the time I was through, and I wrote this story about the experience. One of the ways I kept myself sane was buying cassette tapes at truck stops and then singing the songs as loud as I could with the windows rolled down while I drove down the interstate. One of my favorite finds was a Tammy Wynette tape that featured, among other more familiar tunes, a song called "My Man Understands," which is this sassy, rollicking number devoted to explaining how her man is the most amazing man ever, an understanding man who never does anything wrong apparently, even when he "works late" and then comes home all lovey-dovey to her. According to Tammy, "He holds [her] in the palm of his hand/ and [she] like[s] it/ and [she] want[s] to keep it like [that] all the time." The story I ended up writing is nothing like that.

9) "Blackout"—Story about this guy who makes an ass out of himself at his 10-year high school reunion. Kind of pathetic. He and his buddies could seriously use something new and entertaining to listen to, so I'm going to recommend one of my son London's favorites. London likes techno/house/whatever you want to call it, and I generally don't, but I've got to agree that Digitalism's "Pogo" is one of the funnest songs in recent years: "'And I'll be out of this place/As soon as you tell me/Where the night is." We're with you, you funny German dancin' dudes. Let's go.

10) "A Desert Island Romance"—A couple stranded on a desert island finds that their old routine is preferable to life in paradise, so they go about trying to recreate their former lives in a way that proves to be ridiculous and impossible. I wrote this story as a way of exploring one of my pet theories, which is that we're much more attached to our personal problems than we're willing to admit. If they were all resolved, we'd just go looking for them again. It's basically a fun story, not a whole lot of gloom and doom despite the shipwreck and all, so I'm going here with one of my favorite pop songs from last year, Camera Obscura's "French Navy." Note the nautical tie-in. Slick.

11) "My Roommate Kevin Is Awesome"—Two college roommates perform miracles without understanding how. They disturb the very core of the universe and are reprimanded by a God-like figure. This is fine with them. One of the miracles they perform is to make Ray Charles appear in their dorm room, after which Ray Charles holds a piano recital and buys the underage protagonists beer. Therefore, Mr. Ray Charles the one and only, singing "It Makes No Difference Now"—"Makes no difference now/What kind of life fate hands me/ I'll get along without you now/It's plain to see//Let things happen as they will/I'll forget somehow/I just don't worry/'Cause it makes no difference now."

12) "The Cyclist"—The main character in this story is a musician who's left the spotlight to go back to his hometown. He's largely OK with his decisions, but he experiences a bit of an existential crisis because he feels trapped in the singularity of his own body, his one-time life, his one-and-only shot at things. Late in the story, he passes into a dreamlike state in which he hears music coming to him, a song he knows he's composing in his own head at that moment, a song that's "eerie and almost baleful . . . a piano that feels like dead petals falling in a place as wide and empty as he has always imagined heaven to be, or Wyoming." Maybe it's just the song title—no it's not, it's the mood, the piano intro—but I can't help thinking of Sufjan Stevens' "Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois": "When the revenant came down/ We couldn't imagine what it was/ In the spirit of three stars/The alien thing that took its form." Best album of the past decade? Go ahead, argue with me.

13) "The Culvert"—A man's son drowns in a flood, or so it seems . . . the narrator is willing to give up his own life to find out if it's true. This is almost a literal "down the rabbit hole" story, a conscious movement on the part of the narrator into the surreal world of dreams, which is where the collection winds up. So, my favorite "dream" song of all-time to close out the set—"Strawberry Fields Forever,"—John, Paul, George, Ringo. Love you guys, still.

Keith Lee Morris and Call it What You Want links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

Blogcritics review
BOMBlog review
Elderly Thespian review
Publishers Weekly review
Time Out Chicago review
View from Here review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes music playlist by the author for The Dart League King
Tin House essay by the author on naming books

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly highlights of comics & graphic novels)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly highlights of new books)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from this week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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