The Morning News

The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

The 2009 ToB Contenders List

The 2009 Judges & Brackets

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Previous years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Kevin: This matchup is riddled with conflicts of interest here in the announcer’s booth. Judge Jon Eig is a good friend of mine and Keith Lee Morris, author of The Dart League King, teaches in the same department as you at Clemson.

Now, if this competition were a prose slam, Toni Morrison would be meeting Jhumpa Lahiri in the final after fighting off Marilynne Robinson in a tough prelim. The women have it all over the men this year in the art of putting the perfect word next to a bunch of other words. I have always admired Morrison’s style and she is as good in this book as she has ever been.

But Jon! The Dart League King! Come on, it’s awesome! I had never heard of Keith Lee Morris before I picked up this book and it knocked me on my ass. I laughed through the first third, thinking it was one kind of story and then something entirely unexpected and shocking happens that made me realize it was a different kind of novel entirely. It’s funny, it’s dark, it’s fast-paced, and the characters are terrific. It reminds me a little bit of early Martin Amis (not as deep or bitingly satirical as Amis, but it has darts!) and a little bit of Elmore Leonard.

I’m going to say it here in the first round because I might not get another chance. The Dart League King might be my favorite book in this whole tournament. It’s first or a very close second.

Of course, it’s hard to fault Jon for advancing a poignant book about American slavery by probably the last American Nobel Prize Winner for Literature we will see in our lifetime over a book about a coked-up night of playing darts in Idaho. But The Dart League King is the kind of book you don’t need to explain to anyone why it’s great. Just put it in a friend’s hands and tell him that it rocks.

And while A Mercy is sincere and beautifully written, I thought the underlying themes weren’t really up to the surface subject matter. Fiction frequently uses stories that are small and personal and easy to understand as metaphors for things that are large and difficult to wrap our heads around. It felt a little to me like Morrison was using slavery, this huge thing that’s impossible to comprehend, as a metaphor for something that’s kind of small and easy to understand.

That’s transparent nitpicking, but it’s all a way of expressing my dismay (although certainly not shock) that The Dart League King is dead. I don’t know what kind of support this small-press book will get in the Zombie voting, but I am hoping for a miracle resurrection. Or barring a comeback, I hope that people will still go seek it out and read it. It’s terrific.

John: As you note, my objectivity is completely compromised in this match-up and I won’t pretend otherwise. I recommended The Dart League King for the tournament when I first read the pre-pub copy and have been an unabashed booster for the book in various corners of the internet since. I’m psyched that both you and Jon Eig liked it as much as I did, but I feel like Steve Bartman reached over and snatched a catchable foul ball out of Moises Alou’s glove to give Morrison the victory.

Keith’s book is a major pleasure to read and in themes and feel a bit of a throwback to something like Rock Springs Richard Ford. I ripped through it like crazy on the flight back from Book Expo and it was the second best book I read in calendar year 2008, the best being Revolutionary Road.

Plus, Keith is a good guy who’s bought me a beer in two different states.

But as Judge Eig demonstrates, it’s hard not to be impressed with Toni Morrison. She’s reached the status where her books are her own genre like Pynchon or Cormac McCarthy, or maybe even Roberto Bolaño now. Her books are kind of difficult, often confusing in the moment, but they manage to burrow their way in and lodge somewhere in the solar plexus as they accrue more and more weight and power. I felt like I could have easily put down A Mercy after 25 pages and never thought about it again, but by the end, I did find myself strongly affected by the novel.

Still, A Mercy, really is Morrison “reduced calorie.” It’s got the flavors you expect, but the portion is smaller and ultimately not as satisfying.

I want a recount. Failing that, I’m also praying for a zombie resurrection for The Dart League King.

So far we’ve had wins by three of the lower seeded books which puts us about on par according to this fascinating if possibly futile analysis of past results. If My Revolutions can take out Home tomorrow, the underdogs will have officially split the first round.

Reader Comments

On March 17, 2009 at 8:37 AM Jonathan Eig said…

Bartman? Ouch!

On March 17, 2009 at 8:41 AM Matt Evans said…

Compromised objectivity or no, the judges' cries for /Dart League King/ justice have reached this reader. I will read /DLK/ just as soon as I finish the five (or seven) or so books crowding my desk. Besides, the book's set in Idaho. Idaho! I'm a Utahn. Idaho is to Utah as Oklahoma is to Texas; that is, Idaho is Utah's cross-eyed, buck-toothed, thick-tongued sibling of a Mormon-dominated-population state. It's hard for me to imagine something -- hell, anything -- interesting taking place in Idaho. Consider me intrigued.

On March 17, 2009 at 9:12 AM Doug said…

I was about to post that Jonathan Eig has written one of the greatest book reviews ever. Creative, witty, doesn't give away much of the plots. Then I read the ending, where he chose A Mercy. No guts. Having read both books, I strongly agree with Kevin and John. DLK is really quite awesome. Check it out.

On March 17, 2009 at 11:59 AM Chuck Million said…

I'll be playing darts tonight regardless.

On March 17, 2009 at 9:56 AM Drew Johnson said…

Kevin: Bringing up Amis reminds me that London Fields had darts, too. And a guy named Keith. Eerie.

On March 17, 2009 at 12:49 PM Lou Gehrig said…

"Truth told, I fell asleep a couple of times mid-page."
"Morrison makes me dizzy. I read passages knowing that I’m not supposed to understand them, that I might understand them later, or not."

So Eig experience these things while reading Morrison, and for some vague reason, still picked her book?

"The book rattled my bones and left me shaking long after I finished it."

That's the rattling of Eig's soul bowing to Morrison's reputation.

On March 17, 2009 at 7:38 PM Mary said…

I haven't read The Dart League King, but I loved A Mercy. It's just easy to hate on a Nobel prize winner, especially when an obviously great and largely unknown novel has lost to her book. But A Mercy is amazing.

On March 18, 2009 at 4:28 AM meave said…

Please. Dart League King is a dude book for dudes. It's absolutely intolerable if you've ever felt skeezed out by a gross guy at bar. I couldn't believe it made the tourney this year, what a waste of my time.

On March 18, 2009 at 12:10 PM Jim said…

You can all say that Morrison took this on reputation, but let's face it: there's a reason for that reputation. A Mercy is light on words but heavy on impact--a novel that reveals itself more and more on re-reading. I agree with John's comment that you can put the book down after 25 pages and feel unaffected. But part of the genius is that slow build. It's a book that is effective only in its completeness--worth reading a single-sitting and worth returning to over and over. It is one of our greatest writers experimenting with form and refusing to ride on her reputation--as dazzling return to brilliance after the past one or two missteps. The Dart League King is a pleasant first novel. Easy to love but just as easy to forget. This was Morrison's in a walk, and she deserved it.

On March 19, 2009 at 7:33 AM Gregg said…

A Dart League King has been my favorite out of a handful of these books. I started The Lazarus Project, got about a quarter of the way through, picked up DLK and it grabbed me. I had to finish it straight through (which gave me an interesting perspective on judging two books). I just finished A Mercy, and had a similar experience. (while reading Netherland)
After, I picked DLK over A Mercy by a whisker, but it was so close. I enjoyed both. I feel I would recommend DLK to more friends than A Mercy. Like recommending restaurants to a friend, DLK will satisfy and you'll have a truly great evening. The chef is superb and prepares a delightful meal and the atmosphere is eclectic. Mercy on the other hand has this chef who takes these spices and combines them in a way that is not only terrific, but after, the next day, you will still taste, smell and remember that unique preparation. The atmosphere, however, is not so hot.