Not a book reviewer, I was so moved by one of Keith Lee Morris’s stories a few years ago that I spontaneously wrote a review on an open book forum. His new short story collection, “Call It What You Want” (Tin House Publishing) demands a finer appraisal than my unpracticed attempt, but I can’t keep quiet about it either. “Call It What You Want” should secure Keith Lee Morris’s standing among the best U.S. fiction writers today.
Morris, the author of two novels and another short story collection, writes about ordinary men (and only rarely from a woman’s point of view, but when he does, he gets it right). The stories mostly take place in small towns without obvious heroes. Yet, his characters persevere with urgency and decency. Morris elicits the magic inherent in everyday life.
His writing is mysterious: unaffected and seemingly straightforward, the prose rolls along in great swells you don’t notice until it’s time to stop reading—you’ll try to refuse. His common men are not especially smart but their stories linger in your mind, forcing you to think and rethink whatever you believe.
“Testimony,” the first story of thirteen, is a tour-de-force in which a young man, under examination in court, relates the tragic chain of events that led to his friend’s death. The story is told in the first-person, from the young man’s point of view, as lawyers for the prosecution question him. He thinks of questions he hopes they won’t ask, only to discover that he is dredging up unwanted memories and allegiances. The more he tries to search for excuses, the more the fault lines in his defense appear. By story’s end, he cannot escape his own moral failing.
Throughout this collection, the characters struggle desperately to outrun or deny their fate, but heartbreak hunts them down in the end.
A child disappears from his bed during a night of flooding, in “The Culvert.” Everybody in town searches for the boy but the parents continue to hope after there is no hope. Past that, the mother and a younger brother begin to adjust to the horrible truth. The father, however, finds ways to bolster an outlandish faith. He notices missing books, more in fact than the boy could have carried at once. The father’s intuition and dreams and even his pulse reassure him. Of course, his mind works overtime, all the time, to deny the worst. Long after the flood has receded in the town’s memory, he thinks:
“That time when you arrived home to find that he wasn’t in the car seat, and you felt sick momentarily—it turned out, upon a second’s reflection, that you hadn’t taken him in the car to begin with. There he was in the window of the house, waving at you, and you were almost overcome with tears. And so you shouldn’t panic now, not now, because this is just another one of those occasions.”
Not all of Morris’s stories are tragic, and one story in this collection is downright hilarious. “My Roommate Kevin is Awesome,” presents a pair of college roommates enjoying a week of fantasy that abandons the laws of space and time, because one of them had become “more monumentally bored than any other person in the history of the world.”
Grounded in the mundane, the stories in “Call It What You Will” often grow surreal. The collection is unsettling and as real as the anxiety of being alive, and by the same measure, bestows a unique pleasure.