Tuesday , September 22 2020
Character-driven short fiction looking at contemporary life.

Book Review: Call It What You Want by Keith Lee Morris

What happens when a father discovers that his teen son has disappeared from his basement bedroom during a flash flood? What happens when a typical father of two about to spend a lazy hour or two without any family obligations finds a cigarette near the dishwasher in his non-smoking family's kitchen? What happens when a young man in a menial job gets a chance to live out his wildest dreams with a stunning older woman?

These are the kinds of questions Keith Lee Morris deals with in the 13 short stories collected in Call It What You Want. The stories, some in different form, first appeared in a variety of "little" literary magazines: Tin House (the publisher of the collected volume), New England Review, StoryQuarterly, and others. They are stories that attempt to deal imaginatively with the human condition in the best tradition of writers like John Cheever, Flannery O'Conner and the like. They are character-driven explorations of seemingly ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances. They are literary stories for a literate reader.

Sometimes they seem caught up in a Kafkaesque world that swamps its protagonists in nightmare scenarios beyond their comprehension. In "Tired Heart," a man embarking on a cross country move agrees to pick up some packages for a man he doesn't know for a large sum of money. He is given a set of instructions and rules to follow, which seem simple when he gets them, but almost as soon as he starts on his trip, he finds not only make no sense, but become impossible to follow. It is a predicament every bit as strange as that into which Josef K. awakens in The Trial.

In "Blackout," a man loses all memory of an evening spent with an old girlfriend at a high school reunion. In "Desert Island Romance," a man and woman marooned on an island recreate their old lives in their imaginations.

Often the stories deal with people tormented by guilt. "Testimony," the first story in the book, is narrated by a young meth addict who has turned states' evidence in the trial of one of his friends for the murder of another friend, one who had looked up to the narrator as a kind of older brother. At first the reader has to question the reliability of a narrator content to live in a fog of drugs playing games and watching tennis on the tube, but gradually it becomes clear that the young man is suppressing his own feelings of guilt.

"Visitation" deals with a man who comes home from a church service during which his mother has just died to find a robber in his house. In his rage with himself at what he feels has been his poor treatment of his mother, he attacks the intruder, only to recognize his own guilt.

Characters are caught in dead end lives, menial unsatisfying jobs, unhappy relationships. Yet all too often they are unable to escape, except in their imaginations. One dreams of a record shop in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, a time long gone and never again to return, as he spends his days working on roofs in a new housing development. Another has the chance to escape a job as a concierge in a New Orleans hotel, but can't bring himself to take a chance that reality will ever measure up to his dreams.

Yet there are times when the imagination betrays them. The husband in "Camel Light” lets his imagination run wild when he discovers the alien cigarette. The couple marooned on the desert island drift apart as they begin to live in the past of their imagination.

Most of the stories have a realistic base, but there are those that take the reader beyond realism as well. "My Roommate Kevin is Awesome" takes a comic look at two misfit college students who become toasts of the campus when strange wonders begin appearing daily in their dorm room. In "Harmonica" a seemingly meaningless act of a motorcyclist trying to bum a smoke leads to catastrophic results.

The stories in Call It What You Want take an unvarnished look at contemporary life and the people who live it. They explore the limitations that keep people, even those that love each other, apart. They are not particularly optimistic stories, but they are stories that deserve to be read.

About Jack Goodstein

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