Thursday, November 20, 2008

David Means' "The Botch"

I just read David Means' new story "The Botch" in the November, 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine. Means is one of my favorite short story writers. He is the author of three collections--A Quick Kiss of Redemption (1991), Assorted Fire Events (2000), and The Secret Goldfish (2004). Assorted Fire Events won the Los Angels Times Book Prize for Fiction and was short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Much to the dismay of his publishers, Means has never written a novel. When I reviewed The Secret Goldfish, I said the following about Means' dedication to the short story:

"I suspect the guy can’t help it. Like Borges, who once said that a short story may be, for all purposes, “essential," or Andre Dubus, who said he loved short stories because “they are the way we live," or Alice Munro, who once told an interviewer that she doesn’t write novels because she sees her material in a short-story way, David Means-- like Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley--sees the world in a short-story way.

To understand that “short-story way,” pick up Means’ new collection of fifteen stories. But don’t rush through them. Read one, put the book by and meditate on the mystery of the human condition the story explores. Then wait a while before reading another.

The short story is often misunderstood and underrated because readers read it the same way they do sections of novels.

Don’t go to David Means for plot that rushes to its inevitable end or for easily recognizable character, like the folks you meet every day. Go to David Means for some scary, sacred, sense that what happens is not as important as what it signifies and for the shock of recognition that those you thought you knew you don’t really know at all.

You go to Means for mystery and the paradox understood by the great short story writers from Poe to Chekhov to Carver--that if you remove everything extraneous from a scene, an object, a person, its meaning is revealed, stark and astonishing."

"The Botch" story reminded me of another reason why short stories are not popular and perhaps never will be. You cannot read a good short story just once. You must read it at least twice, perhaps more. I have been reading short stories all my academic life, and I read "The Botch" three times before I began to appreciate it

The story is about three men who rob a bank in the town of Gallipolis, Ohio. Although the time of the robbery is not made clear, there are many references to the "tradition" of bank robberies in the Depression, and the narrator of the story--one of the robbers--sees the three men as sort of Robin Hoods in the Bonnie and Clyde mode. During the robbery, the narrator is distracted by an outside event, which in turn makes the robbers shooting several of the people in the bank.

So what is the story about? Well, I think it has something to do with the line from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men"--"Between the idea and the reality...lies the shadow." Throughout the story, the narrator continues to repeat the phrase "The idea is" or "The idea being" to introduce the robbers' plans to rob the bank. "The idea is to tap into the old traditions..." "The idea was to find a groove and stay in it..." The idea always is to engage in a mechanical process that follows a pattern and does not deviate from it. However, when a human distraction intervenes, the pattern is destroyed and the plan is "botched." We have seen this scene in crime movies many times--the outlaws have a plan, but something or someone screws up and a massacre ensues.

It is thus not just plot or character that makes this story so engaging and illuminating, but David Means' ability to create a structure of language that captures a universal experience. Maybe some readers can get this on a single reading, but I doubt it. The story rewards multiple readings. That's too much work for many readers. I always had a hard time getting my students to read a story more than once. Usually, they just read through it the way they would a chapter in a novel to "see what happens" and came to class for a kind of group "second reading." Then they got it!

Short stories, unlike novels, are not just a matter of "one damned thing after another." They are a carefully wrought pattern of meaning.

1 comment:

MG said...

Bravo to May's championing of the uncommon, demanding, and profoundly rewarding artistry of good short stories. As Flannery O'Connor said, "Meaning is what keeps the short story from being short." I'm reminded that we have a Slow Food Movement, but maybe we should start a Slow Reading Movement. As a culture, we're rapidly losing the art of (and appreciation for) close and profitable and ruminable reading. This loss doesn't bode well for literary short stories. But on the other hand, it could be that the short story is a kind of savior genre: it may be what eventually saves us from ourselves.