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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.

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judged by Jonathan Eig
If you’re Keith Lee Morris, bumping up against Toni Morrison in Round One, you’ve got to like your chances. First of all, Morrison already has her Nobel Prize, right? So there’s a fair chance she’s not going to bring her A-game. Second, you’ve written a book about a dart league, and you’re going up against a book about the sorrows of slavery. It’s a pretty safe bet (make that a very safe bet) that your judge has read a lot of books about the sorrows of slavery but not one about a dart league. Finally, if you’re Keith Lee Morris, you can swagger a little bit with the knowledge that you have almost certainly written the greatest dart-league book in the history of American literature, a book that, indeed, transcends the dart-league genre—a book that’s funny, suspenseful, and sweet—and bulls-eyes the feel of life in small-town America.

The Dart League King unfolds in a single day, as five characters come together on dart-league night at the 321 Club in Garnet Lake, Idaho. Will Russell Harmon find love or a bullet in the skull? Will the case of a missing college girl be solved? Will the narcotics agent get his man? That’s the nut of it.

Morris can be heavy-handed, as on the book’s second page, when his protagonist snorts four lines of coke “spread out on the glass of his framed high-school diploma.” When he tells us two pages later that said protagonist bought his darts on credit, I’m not buying it. Who’s going to sell a guy darts on credit? I don’t mean to quibble. My point is that Morris sometimes sells his characters a little too hard, and in so doing leaves them soft around the edges—especially his women.

That said, I loved the book. It grabbed me by my shirt front and pulled me close. Morris writes gorgeous, muscular sentences. He knows how to build suspense. He kept me entertained and guessing every step of the way. By the end, you would have needed a crowbar to separate me from this book.

I had an entirely different experience with A Mercy. Truth told, I fell asleep a couple of times mid-page. Once upon a time, I was a huge fan of Toni Morrison, but I grew a little tired of her shtick after Beloved and hadn’t read any of her books since. If the Rooster hadn’t knocked at my door, I would have skipped this one, too.

Morrison makes me dizzy. I read passages knowing that I’m not supposed to understand them, that I might understand them later, or not. Scenes come and go like drunken brainstorms, in random order and in ways too blurry to do any good. “Don’t be afraid,” an unidentified narrator tells us by way of introduction in this book. “You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog’s profile plays in the steam of a kettle.”


And yet somehow, for me, somewhere along the way, it began to sink in. The landscape opened up. The characters popped to life. A Mercy tells of four abandoned women, one white, one Native American, two black, all enslaved, at least in some sense of the word. It’s the 17th century and slavery is new. We usually read about slavery after the scars have formed, but in this story the institution is just taking shape, the relationships untested, the morals are ambiguous, the possibilities are endless—which of course makes it all the more profoundly tragic.

Then there’s the writing, which took my breath away at times. “Walking in the warm night air,” Morrison writes, “he went as far as possible, until the alehouse lights were gem stones fighting darkness and the voices of carousing men were lost to the silk-rustle of surf. The sky had forgotten completely its morning fire and was tricked out in cool stars on a canvas smooth and dark as Regina’s hide. He gazed at the occasional dapple of starlight on the water, then bent down and placed his hands in it. Sand moved under his palms; infant waves died above his wrists, soaking the cuffs of his sleeves. By and by the detritus of the day washed off….”

Morrison packs a lot of story, a lot of beauty, a lot of tension, and a lot of pain into 167 pages. Even when I didn’t quite understand it, this book rattled my bones and left me shaking long after I finished it. So strange. So beautiful. So sad.

So there you go, Toni Morrison. Put another trophy on the shelf next to your Nobel. You’ve beaten the Dart League King.

Today’s WINNER

A Mercy by Toni Morrison

About the Judge

Jonathan Eig is a contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has written for Esquire, the New Republic, Men’s Health, and many other publications. His books include Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig, and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season. Known connections to this year’s contenders: I met Hemon at a party and got him to sign my book. His wife once gave me a freelance assignment that paid me far more than I'm worth. Growing up in Monsey, N.Y., I lived three or four miles from Toni Morrison. This was before she made enough money to leave Monsey. I never met her, but I interviewed her once for a profile of the late great writer Leon Forrest.

From the Booth

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. Kevin John I want a recount. Failing that, I’m praying for a zombie resurrection.
» Read Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner’s commentary on the match and leave a comment of your own «

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