Let’s everyone stop mentioning the supposed death of the American short story. I don’t know which louse in the academy started that foul rumor, but not only is the short story not dead, it’s never even been close to sick. Despite the recent successes of Jhumpa Lahiri and Adam Haslett, among others, an immensely skillful story writer such as Keith Morris still must settle on a small university press that neither pays nor publicizes. Morris’s stirring debut collection, The Best Seats in the House and Other Stories, will not find lovers of the short story; lovers of the short story must find it.
Morris is heir to the Richard Ford of Rock Springs; he has that rare gift of writing truthfully about people we know and care for: the commoners who are forced to make their own luck in life, confused fathers and sons coming to terms with each other, blue-collar husbands and wives trying to hold on to what remains.
The two delinquent musicians in “Geraldine Loves” are longtime friends who have relocated to New Orleans to escape the stagnation of their native Idaho where, the narrator admits, “to pass the time, you made things up.” He and Beebo begin receiving a finger-written message on their grimy truck after each sorry gig, Geraldine Loves _______, and the allure of this unknown woman becomes a fixture in the life of a man who is trying desperately to outrun ennui, to determine what he wants from an uncertain world that has promised him nothing. “Our hopes rarely achieve form… our wishes typically remain just that.” The young men will return home to Idaho because that’s what failures do after witnessing too much wretchedness and disappointment on the road. This is no mere buddy story à la Kerouac; the sympathy Morris shows these two characters is outdone only by the sympathy they show each other.
The centerpiece of the collection, “The Children of Dead State Troopers,” owes much to Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing”; both stories contain mysterious, unwanted phone calls and imminent death; both peddle a sorrow that never lapses into bathos. Randall Moon is putting a puzzle together with his son to distract himself from the fact that his wife is at a doctor’s office being diagnosed with a brain tumor. Persistent calls from a creepy state trooper asking for a donation force Moon into a reevaluation he can no longer avoid: “He felt suddenly crushed by the weight of his life, struck blindside by circumstance, blown up to bursting with his own troubles.” Moon, like so many of Morris’s people, has found himself in an agonizing situation that he is powerless to change, and so thinking and feeling themselves become a kind of action. Morris is not trying to break hearts, but the honesty behind the emotions nevertheless forces a tightening in the chest.
My favorite story here is “Mr. Jordan’s Arrival,” about a father and his boy who come into contact with a deranged drifter on the railroad tracks behind their home. The drifter steals the boy’s dog and the father is forced to react, but not before considering the limits of his own manhood and the necessity of violence. In hands less able than Morris’s, the drifter would have been a one-dimensional villain, and the father a self-righteous vigilante. Instead, what we are given is really a meditation on tenderness: “I tried to tell Seth that men sometimes did bad things, even good men, but I could never get the words to come out right.” That’s one problem Morris himself does not have.