Keith Lee Morris’ Fragile Men

Call it What You Want: Stories by Keith Lee Morris. Tin House Books. pp. 264, $14.95 list ($10.76 at the above-linked B&N.com).

Reviewed by Jennifer Bassett.

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My first “real” writing class was in high school and taught by a young man who had just graduated from an MFA program. He was excited and passionate and on the first day of class he read us Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” from Jesus’ Son. We were all riveted. First of all, the story involved drugs (!) and secondly the writing was so sharp, it practically slit our wrists. For me, personally, that moment was particularly pivotal. Jesus’ Son and Johnson’s particular brand of writing—tough, honest, gritty, male, but with an undercurrent of boyish vulnerability—came to represent a standard by which I judged everything else.

This ingrained set of tastes has predisposed me to find much to like in Call it What You Want, the new story collection by Keith Lee Morris. Morris is plain-spoken, but his style is laced with a distinct, playful wit and could just as easily draw comparisons to Richard Ford, John Cheever, or Flannery O’Connor, as to the aforementioned Johnson. What Morris shares with Johnson, however, is that their work centers on the same type of men. That is, clueless, average, childish men who aren’t always honest with themselves, have trouble communicating despite a rich inner life, and as a consequence tend to fuck things up a whole lot. For Morris’s characters, as for many of Johnson’s, redemption appears to be a fragile, fleeting thing that only occurs when you hit rock bottom. However, in Morris’ case, rock bottom, while quieter, is perhaps even more dangerous; it is when dreams give way to reality, and it could happen at any instant.

Take Robert, the narrator of “Testimony,” a meth addict who is called to testify against a friend who has been accused of killing their mutual friend, Jeremy. As Robert recounts the story behind the murder, (which becomes more and more horrifying as it approaches the truth) two dream worlds emerge and then unravel: his and Jeremy’s. Robert’s eventual acknowledgement of reality (and his complicity in Jeremy’s death) leads to a moment of grace, but reality ultimately proves to be too dangerous a space (“everything had broken open, the world had become unglued”) and the story ends with the narrator’s retreat back to the safety of his—and Jeremy’s—dreams.

This collision of dreams and reality is central to all of the stories in Call it What You Want. In “Camel Light,” a father, home alone on a spring day, finds a half-smoked cigarette underneath the dishwasher. He then works himself up as he elaborately imagines where it came from. The ridiculous scenarios he dreams up reveal his profound disappointment:

He’d taken on all these burdens, he’d labored like a beast in the hot sun, burning and thirsting, and they’d kept adding more, hadn’t they, one weight after another, until he was crushed beneath the load. And what had been the compensation? Three people that he loved, three people he would walk through fire for…

For this character as well, the burden of reality—and the possibility of the truth—becomes too much to handle, so rather than confront his wife, son, daughter, or his own unhappiness, he hides the cigarette in his sock drawer, and retreats back to his dream world. Even in the lightest and most hilarious of the stories, “My Roommate Kevin is Awesome,” (kind of a literary “Dude, Where’s My Car”) in which a college student’s bored roommate is suddenly blessed with magical powers that result in everything from a visit from Ray Charles, to  “a huge baggie of weed that like totally fried your brain on one hit but you could still maintain and hold a conversation…” the dream world remains favorable to reality.

The same may not hold true for the few women that populate Morris’ pages—who all seem to be brighter, more articulate, and more in touch with reality than Morris’ disappointed men. Whether it is the prosecutor in “Testimony” or Sharon, the woman Roger meets in perhaps the slipperiest and most dream-like of Morris’ stories, “A Desert Island Romance,” the women in these stories appear to be wiser and more in control. And yet, I’m still not sure what Morris means to say about this. While much of Morris’ work feels studied and well plotted, this tendency feels less conscious. Morris knows men, not women—and the women are mostly here to move their (that is, the men’s) inner progression along.

While I think I would purely and honestly enjoy Morris’ well-executed (and often generous and moving) work if I stumbled upon one story in a magazine, all 13 gathered together feels like a little much. After all, as I said, while I am naturally predisposed to enjoy the kind of writing that focuses mostly on flawed, fragile men, there’s only so much womanly sympathy I can muster before I want to tell these dudes to just grow up.

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Jennifer Bassett is a former book editor and literary magazine editor. She works at a brand consultancy, writes book and music reviews, and plays the organ and synth in a band called The Living Kills.