If you haven't read Michael Keith's latest anthology of short stories, Sad Boy, you are missing the opportunity to be mesmerized by characters that live with you long after you've closed the book -- ones that leave you wondering if by some small chance, by some minor change of events, things might have been very different. Keith has the uncanny skill of demonstrating that life, whether near normal or bizarre, is determined by seemingly inconsequential events.
His characters are often eerily familiar because they reflect parts of ourselves -- the parts we wonder and worry about that take us to dangerous places our more rational selves avoid. They and their dilemmas unfold vividly in a short space of time, often destined to their fates.
I read his stories as one drinks a fine cognac -- over time. Each story deserves complete
attention to the flavors of the moments Keith crafts. You sense that he lives with his characters as exceptional writers do. He shapes their lives from inside rather than as a distant observer. And so you experience their emotions as if they are your own. You're carried along on plots that are fiction and yet closely parallel aspects of reality you know at least in passing. In fact, he dedicated Sad Boy "to all the boys in the world and to those who act like boys regardless of their age" and thanks them for the material.
Perhaps you'll wonder, as I do when reading his work, how did he think of this person, this event? Where was he at the time? Is he the boy? Because you're sure that Keith must have lived a part of each story.
You might wonder, too, if Michael Keith is perhaps distantly related to Alfred Hitchcock. See if you don't think so? Who thinks of such bizarre plots and odd characters and then delivers their fictional lives to us with such intense reality that chills run up your spine? It's a rare gift.
Some of his stories are not for the faint of heart. I'll warn you. But there is whimsical relief among them. Don't look for it in "The Smoking Olympics," with which the book opens. A determined boy's decision to be famous is facilitated by parents taken by the novelty and commitment of their son's unusual plan. The risk far outweighs the benefits and yet we all know parents who go too far helping their children stand out -- perhaps to live their own dreams. "Dreamers make the world a better place," his mom justifies. And they do. But only, the dad argues, if they have good plans. And so their son proceeds on a course backed by good reasons unreasonably applied.
Disturbing are stories like the boy who blames his parents for not turning him in the crib enough for him to have a well-rounded head. He thinks of all the things that could happen to him because of that one neglect. How many parents have been spared blame for things they could not control? Not many.
But just as you might despair at the influence of elders on the lives of children, you read "The Walking Mountains" -- a beautiful title for a charming story. A grandfather's tale entices a young boy to follow the sands of these mountains to nearly die in his fight with a lion and then to face the jeers of disbelieving neighbors when he returns home. Did the boy dream? Did he kill the lion? Did his grandfather tell the truth about the wonders of the mountains? Are the neighbors right? Or are they merely bereft of imagination?
You'll cringe, shudder, cry and smile, each time in a matter of paragraphs.
Sad Boy is a book you might not read before bed, but one you should surely read.