Southern Cultures 12.1 (2006) 112-114
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Christopher Tilghman (In a Father's Place, Mason's Retreat) once said the point of writing a short story is to ask the right question. Never mind trying to hammer out an answer for the reader: just ask the right question. Well, there's craft in asking the right question—in asking it in the right way and in leaving it at that—and South Carolina's Keith Lee Morris has it mastered. In fact, asking just the right [End Page 112] question in just the right way might be the defining, separating aspect of Morris's debut collection of stories, The Best Seats in the House. Some authors suggest ideas or leave you anticipating the next word as well as Morris. A few render characters and landscapes as deeply. Fewer still depict conflict as patiently and subtly. But hardly any take every word of their short stories to pose the right questions so devastatingly and, in doing so, remind you that answers are not at all the point.
It's no accident that Morris's particular strength, asking the question, was in part the subject of a thematic strain of The Greyhound God, his debut novel. That work concerned itself in no small way with the question of questions, the Big Question, the G-question, as in, Is there one or not, and what's the point, if not, and if there is a G, who's G really for anyway?—in short, the questions many writers can't even dream of touching. The Greyhound God suggests there are some questions you won't get answered, because you don't necessarily deserve answers. It's through this thematic window left ajar by his novel that we can glimpse the philosophy behind Keith Lee Morris, the author, the story crafter, the question poser, and why he's so invested in asking, and why he's made himself so good at it. Because answers aren't necessarily ever earned or possible or even desirable. And besides, questions are all we can begin to hold.
This philosophy of craft joined to a deft touch makes for some of the most poignant writing around. In the ten stories in The Best Seats in the House, Morris asks questions you don't always know you're considering, but which—due to his particularly artful posing—last. The moments in these stories when questions known or partially known or altogether unknown suddenly carve out their enduring place in the reader's consciousness are delightful and sometimes brilliant, each one constructed paragraph by paragraph until a few hundred words abruptly fall often on a single triggering sentence. Take these questions, in order here as they are implied in the stories in Best Seats, with the simple lines that at once cinch their permanence. Why are some men in the deepest quarters of their souls more afraid of success than failure? ("My son glides through the snow flurries like a fantastic dream, nothing but open space before him, and only himself left to beat.") What happens when you become aware of your own position on the arc? ("I had passed through the idea, entered the water from the shore, and begun to grow accustomed.") Why do hazy, ungraspable hopes pilot each of us? ("Without a shape to attach Geraldine to, she became much more a feeling, one I still have to this day.") Can innocence coexist with the awareness of tragedy? ("Jackson walks ahead and he rolls up his shirtsleeves and looks at his skinny arms and wonders if he will close his hands into fists.") Are there times when the horrendous fates that befall others do, in fact, speak for us? ("'Have I brought you to an understanding now, Mr. Moon . . . of the children of dead state troopers?'") Is there a way to cut your losses with grace? ("I wanted only to achieve a level of intimacy that Julia Finch couldn't...