Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Short-a-Day: Keith Lee Morris's "Testimony"

Originally published in A Public Space 03, Winter 2007. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 79.

This is a very solidly constructed tale, a courthouse drama-of-the-ordinary told from the perspective of a young-twentysomething who is testifying (in return for immunity) about the role his druggie friend Andrew Munson played in the death of his foster brother and roommate Jeremy Schiff. He's a sincere narrator, reliable in that he explains to us that he's going to be holding a few things back but that, really, this is mostly the truth, and he's as eager as we and the prosecutors are to understand what really happened. "I guess the truth was I'd been waiting for the trial all this time to understand myself what it was that really happened that day and why and who was to blame and how much. I thought the State of Idaho should be able to decide that, and I didn't want to make it easier on anyone, including myself, by helping people jump to conclusions." And really, that's how fiction should work, allowing the reader to act as a jury member--more specifically, as a peer--as we assess what's going on; the trick Morris pulls off is that despite a clear testimony, some things remain inexplicable.

The biggest revelation in this story--aside from the nature of the crime--is that these young adults, unaware of the implications of what had happened to their punching-bag friend, actually laughed about it. And that serves as a terrific contrast--especially from the narrator's nonchalant perspective--with how Andrew acts in the courtroom, surprising the people who knew him best with actual tears.

He looked shit at and hit. He looked like he might have been crying when Jessica [his girlfriend] was on the stand, I was kind of shocked to see, because I hadn't imagined , of all things, Andy Munson crying about anything, ever, and he was kind of slumped down in his chair and even his expensive charcoal gray suit couldn't help defeat the overall impression of someone who'd lost whatever there was to lose in this world.
Our "hero," meanwhile? "I went up and they made me state my name and they made me put my hand on the Bible and swear the oath and then they told me to sit down and i did, and a funny thing happened--I felt completely relaxed. Sitting up there on the witness stand, higher up than anyone but the judge, it felt like my courtroom." That's a new slant on an old story, and what follows is an interesting bit of absolution, a public confession that ends with this observation: "All the eyes in the place were the same--flat, stony, dead, even the ones that had tears flowing from them like Andy's. All the eyes said it was over, done, the book had been closed on something. The eyes were through with me." 

The pacing, however, feels a bit scripted, particularly in the steady drips of anecdotal flashbacks. (Perhaps that's the nature of fiction in a world filled with procedural dramas.) And those flashbacks--though grounded, down-to-earth events--are perhaps too ordinary. It's nice that Morris is able to create cautionary Everymen out of these not-quite-friends who "hang out" and do drugs, but while we may find these events accessible, they don't resonate or really connect the actual characters. There's also the niggling absence of the fourth friend, Nolan; what does he think or feel? Hey--nobody ever said writing fiction was easy!

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