THERE'S A SHORT STORY in Keith Lee Morris' new collection, Call it What You Want, about a woman burying a squirrel. The squirrel was a symbol of hope for her now-dead child, when he was sick with cancer. Appropriately enough, like the child, the squirrel is now gone.
The story is written from the woman's perspective to her late husband, who killed himself because he couldn't take watching the child die. And boy, is it ever depressing.
"Okay. You got me," says Morris, on the phone from South Carolina where he teaches creative writing. "I admit that's the most depressing story I've ever written. I threw it all in. Including the kitchen sink."
But he does think that in all his stories there's some kind of redemptive moment—in that gray area between despair and possibility. The question, for most of his characters, is whether or not they'll take the opportunity.
"By the time you get old enough to know what you're doing in life, you've probably made a million mistakes that you don't know how to fix," he says. "But I do feel like there's a moment where people can come through and redeem themselves, and I think that's what this story does."
According to Morris, in the squirrel story the mother's opportunity is through having to take care of the surviving child.
"And she doesn't have any choice," he says. "She has to do that. I'd like to think there's some reason to go on."
You'd like to think so, too. On the other hand, in a story about a man who has just testified in court against his friend, who beat one of their mutual friends to death on a crystal meth binge, the protagonist's self-recrimination and guilt are simply a lesson.
"Stories are, ultimately, for a reader," Morris explains. "My god, you read Anna Karenina—1,000 pages before this woman throws herself in front of a train. The idea is that as a reader you can look at other people's mistakes and try to avoid them. Not always."
Morris wrote the story after serving as foreman on a jury trial in South Carolina, shifting the setting to his native Sandpoint, Idaho. Almost all of his characters seem most at home there, stuck, as the book jacket suggests, in the liminal spaces between adolescence and adulthood.
There's also something about the small town that's reflective of Morris' characters, who "in some ways want lives that are larger than they've got." For example, there's the man who convinces himself that his wife is having an affair because he finds a cigarette under their dishwasher. He spends the entire story trying to decide whether to smoke the thing as he contemplates all the different ways she could have betrayed him, and his own missed opportunity to cheat with a smoking coworker. The lesson? Smoke the damned cigarette, of course. Or leave Idaho!
Anything would be better than the character's timidity, his isolation, his quiet despair. But the man's denial of himself, in the story, is torture. And it's affirming of your own fragile desire, as a reader, to live bravely.
Morris describes his characters' relationship with Sandpoint, and themselves, as "love hate," because in most cases, people spend their lives in Sandpoint, vowing to leave. It's Morris' ability to isolate these kinds of human longings and riff on them, even past morbidity to the point of a black hilarity that makes his fiction so compelling and so real.