Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Important Short Stories of the 20th Century: First Fifty Years

Individual short stories often just disappear.  Those that remain usually do so for two reasons:
(1) They get anthologized in text books and thus taught in classrooms
(2 They get discussed in articles and books

I have chosen the following list of approximately 200 stories based on those two criteria.  I will post a list of stories from the last half of the 20th century next week.  The dates reflect when the stories first appeared in book form. If you find errors or omissions, please let me know. I would appreciate it.

Cather, Willa          "Paul's Case" 1905
"Sculptor's Funeral" 1905
Forster, E. M.         "Other Side of the Hedge" 1904
"Road from Colonus" 1904
"Celestial Omnibus" 1911
Galsworthy, John     "Japanese Quince" 1910
Mann, Thomas        "Gladius Dei" 1902
"Infant Prodigy" 1903
"Tonio Kroger" 1903
"Death in Venice" 1912
"Railway Accident"
"Little Herr Friedman" 1903
Unamuno, Miguel de "Madness of Dr. Montarco" 1904

Akutagawa, Ryunosuke "Rashomon" 1915
Anderson, Sherwood Winesburg, Ohio 1919
Bunin, Ivan            "Gentleman from San Francisco" 1915
Dreiser, Theodore    "Lost Phoebe" 1916
Hesse, Hermann     "The Poet" 1913
Joyce, James         Dubliners 1914
Kafka, Franz          "Metamorphosis" 1915
"Judgment" 1916
"Country Doctor" 1919
Lawrence, D. H.      "Odor of Chrysanthemums" 1911
"Prussian Officer" 1913
"White Stockings" 1914
"Tickets, Please" 1919
Mansfield, Katherine  "Bliss" 1918
Pirandello, Luigi       "War" 1919

Akutagawa, Ryunosuke "In a Grove" 1922
Anderson, Sherwood "The Egg" 1921
"I Want to Know Why" 1921
"I'm a Fool" 1922
"Man Who Became a Woman" 1923
"Death in the Woods" 1926
Babel, Isaac           "How it Was Done in Odessa" 1923
"Crossing into Poland" 1924
"My First Goose" 1924
"Story of My Dovecote"
Callaghan, Morley    "Faithful Wife" 1929
Capek, Karel         "Last Judgment" 1929
Connell, Richard      "Most Dangerous Game" 1924
Coppard, A.E.        "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me" 1921
"Arabesque--the Mouse" 1921
"The Higgler" 1924
"Field of Mustard" 1926
Fitzgerald, F. Scott   "Diamond Big as the Ritz" 1922
"Absolution 1925
"The Rich Boy" 1926
"Winter Dreams" 1926
Glaspel, Susan       "Jury of Her Peers" 1927
Hemingway, Ernest   "Indian Camp" 1924
"Big, Two-Hearted River" 1925
"Soldier's Home" 1925
"Hills Like White Elephants" 1927
"In Another Country" 1927
"The Killers" 1927
Hurston, Zora Neale  "Spunk" 1925
"Sweat" 1926
Huxley, Aldous        "Young Archimedes" 1924
Kafka, Franz          "Hunger Artist" 1922
Kawabata, Yasunari  "Grasshopper and Cricket" 1924
Lagerkvist, Par        "Father and I" 1923
Lardner,Ring          "Haircut" 1925
"Golden Honeymoon" 1922
Lawrence, D. H.      "Blind Man" 1922
"Horse-Dealer's Daughter" 1922
"Woman who Rode Away" 1925
"Rocking-Horse Winner" 1926
"The Man Who Loved Islands" 1927
"Two Blue Birds" 1927
Mann, Thomas       "Disorder and Early Sorrow" 1926
Mansfield, Katherine  "Miss Brill" 1920
"Daughters of the Late Colonel" 1921
"Her First Ball" 1921
"The Fly" 1922
"Garden Party" 1922
"Marriage a al Mode" 1922
Maughm, Somerset   "Rain" 1921
"Outstation" 1924
Parker, Dorothy       "Big Blonde" 1929
Porter, Katherine Anne "Maria Concepcion" 1922
"Theft" 1929
Quirgo, Horacio       "Dead Man" 1920
Steele, Wilbur Daniel "Footfalls" 1920
Svevo, Italo            "Generous Wine" 1927

Toomer, Jean         "Fern" 1922
"Blood-Burning Moon" 1923
"Theater" 1923
Woolf, Virginia        "Haunted House" 1921

Aiken, Conrad        "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" 1932
Babel, Isaac          "In the Basement" 1930
"Guy de Maupassant" 1932
"Di Grasso" 1937
Beckett, Samuel      "Dante and the Lobster" 1932
Bontemps, Arna      "Summer Tragedy" 1933
Borges, Jorge Luis   "Pierre Menard, Author of Quixote" 1939
Bowen, Elizabeth     "Her Table Spread" 1930
"Tears, Idle Tears" 1937
Boyle, Kay            "Astronomer's Wife" 1936
"White Horses of Vienna"
Caldwell, Erskin       "Kneel to the Rising Sun" 1935
Callaghan, Morley    "Sick Call" 1932
Dinesen, Isak         "The Monkey" 1934
Faulkner, William     "Rose for Emily" 1930
"Dry September" 1930
"Spotted Horses" 1931
"That Evening Sun" 1931
"Barn Burning" 1939
Gordon, Carol ine     "Old Red" 1933
Greene, Graham     "The Basement Room" 1935
Hemingway, Ernest   "Clean, Well-Lighted Place" 1933
"Short Happy Life of Frances Macomber" 1936
Hughes, Langston    "On the Road" 1935
Lagerkvist, Par        "Children's Campaign" 1935
Landolfi, Tommaso   "Wedding Night" 1939
McCarthy, Mary       "Cruel and Barbarous Treatment" 1939
O'Connor, Frank      "Guests of the Nation" 1930
"First Confession" 1939
Porter, Katherine Anne" The Grave" 1935
"Noon Wine" 1936
"Jilting of Granny Weatherall" 1930
"Flowering Judas" 1930
Pritchett, V.S.         "Sense of Humor" 1937
Saroyan, William      "Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" 1934
Sartre, Jean Paul     "The Wall" 1937
Schorer, Mark         "Boy in the Summer Sun" 1937
Schultz, Bruno        "Street of Crocodiles" 1934
Schwartz, Delmore   "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" 1937
Shaw,         Irwin           "Girls in their Summer Dresses" 1939
Steele, Wilburn Daniel" How Beautiful with Shoes" 1932
Steinbeck, John       "The Snake" 1936
"Chrysanthemums" 1938
"Flight" 1938
Unamuno Miguel      "St. Emmanuel the Good, Martyr" 1933
Welty, Eudora                "Death of a Traveling Salesman" 1936
"A Piece of News" 1937
"Petrified Man" 1939
Williams, William Carlos" Use of Force" 1938
Wolfe, Thomas       "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn" 1939
Fitzgerald, F. Scott   "Babylon Revisited" 1930
Wright, Richard       "Big Boy Leaves Home" 1936
"Bright and Morning Star" 1937

Borges, Jorge Luis   "Circular Ruins" 1940
"Tlon, Ugbar, Orbis, Tertius" 1940
"Garden of Forking Paths" 1941
"Lottery in Babylon" 1941
"Library of Babel" 1941
"Funes the Memorious" 1944
Bowen, Elizabeth     "Demon Lover" 1940
"Happy Autumn Fields" 1944
"Queer Heart" 1941
Bowles, Paul          "The Scorpion" 1945
"Distant Episode" 1947
Capote, Truman      "Tree of Night" 1943
"Miriam" 1945
Cheever, John        "Enormous Radio" 1947
Clarke, Walter van Tilburg "Portable Phonograph" 1941
"The Wind and the Snow of Winter" 1944
Dinesen, Isak         "Sailor-Boy's Tale" 1942
"Sorrow Acre" 1942
"Blue Jar" 1922
Ellison, Ralph         "King of the Bingo Game" 1944
"Flying Home" 1944
Gordimer, Nadine     "Train from Rhodesia" 1947
Greene, Graham     "Across the Bridge" 1949
"Hint of an Explanation" 1949
Jackson, Shirley      "The Lottery" 1948
Lavin,  Mary           "A Wet Day" 1944
"The Will" 1944
McCullers, Carson    "Tree, Rock, Cloud" 1942
Nabokov, Vladimir    "That in Aleppo Once" 1943
                     "Signs and Symbols" 1948
O'Connor, Frank      "Judas" 1947
"Drunkard" 1948
O'Faolain, Sean      "Man Who Invented Sin" 1944
"Innocence" 1946
O'Flaherty, Liam      "Two Lovely Beasts" 1946
Powers, J. F.         "Lions, Harts, and Leaping Does" 1943
"Prince of Darkness" 1946
"The Forks" 1947
"Valiant Woman" 1947
Pritchett, V.S.        "Saint" 1940
Salinger, J. D.        "Perfect Day for Bananafish" 1948
"Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut" 1948
Saroyan,William       "Summer of Beautiful White Horse" 1940
Shaw, Irwin           "Act of Faith" 1946
Singer, I.B.           "Spinoza of Market Street" 1944
"Gimpel the Fool" 1957
Stafford, Jean         "Interior Castle" 1947
Stegner, Wallace     "Butcher Bird" 1940
Taylor, Peter          "Fancy Woman" 1940
Trilling, Lionel         "Of This Time, Of That Place" 1943
Warren, Robert Penn"Blackberry Winter" 1946
Welty, Eudora                "Keela, the Outcast Indian Maiden" 1940
"A Visit of Charity" 1941
"Why I Live at the PO" 1941
"Worn Path" 1941
"Powerhouse" 1941
White, E. B.           "Second Tree from the Corner" 1947
Wright, Richard       "Man Who Was Almost a Man" 1940

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why is the Short Story a Neglected Form?

One of the most curious inconsistencies between literary education and academic research is that while the short story is the most frequently taught literary form in high school and college classrooms, it is the literary form most ignored and neglected by academic critics and scholars. There are many reasons for this schism: the “bigger is better” bias that prejudices critics in favor of the novel, the old-fashioned notion that the short story is gimmicky and popular, and the unquestioned assumption that complex emotions and ideas cannot be treated in the short narrative form.

The pressure on writers by agents, editors, and critics to abandon the short story as soon as possible and do something serious with their lives--such as write a novel--is unrelenting. This narrative bias that bigger is better persists in spite of the fact that the faithful few who have ignored it are among the most critically acclaimed writers of the twentieth century:  Anton Chekhov, Jorge Luis Borges, Flannery O'Connor, Peter Taylor, Alice Munro, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver. 

The most obvious fact about the short story is that agents and editors are seldom enthusiastic about taking on a collection of short stories--unless the author is a name with a novel on his or her tally or unless the author is promising, and will promise a novel in the near future.  Why?  Well, because most people would rather not read short stories.  As the popularity of so-called "reality" television makes clear, most prefer the real to the fictional, especially if the real is highly fictionalized.  Only a half dozen or so wide circulation magazines still regularly publish fiction.

What's worse, those who read fiction would rather read novels than stories.  Why?  Most people want to believe that characters have a life of their own; and they have to live with them for a while in order to believe that.  Once you get started with a novel, you become friends, get familiar, take up residence.  With a short story, you no sooner are introduced to a story than it is over, leaving you a bit dazed.  With a collection of stories, you have to do this over and over again.  Unlike chapters in a novel that tease you with the illusion of continuity, short stories are always ending.  And often those conclusions--one of the form's most important aspects--are frustrating in their inconclusiveness.  Readers finish novels closing the book with a satisfied thump and a sense of a big job well done.  Because of its poetic compression, readers often finish short stories with a puzzled "huh."
In spite of the short story’s struggle in contemporary publishing, many teachers find it a most useful form with which to introduce students to the conventions and techniques of fiction.  However, students searching for guidance in their study of the short story are often frustrated by the lack of good criticism of the form. They find it especially difficult to locate helpful discussions of  important recent short stories.

The short story is a deceptively difficult form.  Just because it is small in size does not make it simple in significance.  Quite the contrary, the short story most often involves a more scrupulous use of language than the novel; it is often more like poetry than prose.  In truth, it is not a form that comes naturally, but that one has to learn to read.

One reason why the short story has not been popular or has not maintained its place in modern literature is that readers prefer the novel precisely because it does not demand anything more than perseverance in a continuous flow of reading, becoming one with the sustained rhythm and tone of the work.  William Dean Howells noted in 1901 that although the short story may be attractive when one runs across one singly in a magazine, the short story in a collection seems most repellant to the reader.  The reason stems from the very intensity and compression and suggestiveness of the form itself.  Reading one story, says Howells, one can receive a pleasant "spur to his own constructive faculty.  But if this is repeated in ten or twenty stories, he becomes fluttered and exhausted by the draft upon his energies; whereas a continuous fiction of the same quantity acts as an agreeable sedative."

 L.P. Hartley has said that "A dozen short course are harder for the mind to digest than one long course...`Starting and stopping' exhausts the reader's attention."  V.S. Pritchett has said much the same.  In spite of the work of Flaubert and James, the length, inclusiveness, and shapelessness of the novel creates a "bemusing effect."  "The short story, on the other hand, wakes the reader up.  Not only that; it answers the primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience, the desire for the electric shock." 
In 1923, O'Brien, in his Advance of the American Short Story, said:  "The short-story writers are the destined interpreters of our time to itself and our children." (his conclusion). 

Twenty years later, H. E. Bates, in his 1941 book said that new writers would find the form essential (In Kenyon Review in 1968, he says he does not know why he was wrong, except that it is a poetic form and that the new generation did not find this conducive)  In 1952, Ray West in his book on the short story, said in his conclusion that it seems likely that "we may someday come to view the short story as the particular form through which American letters finally came of age, through which the life of its people and the vision of its artists most nearly approached full expression."  William Peden's 1964 book on the American short story says that in the last two decades there have been more short story writers creating more skillfully than ever before. 

None of these predictions have panned out.  Today the short story is not a popular form with general readers, nor a respected form with academic critics--too demanding for the former; not demanding enough for the latter. 

So we beat on, boats against the current.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Michael Byers' The Coast of Good Intentions

Short stories have a bad habit of disappearing, originally showing up in little mags with small circulations and then appearing in collections that seldom get reviewed, get no publicity, and then languish on library shelves, which fewer and fewer people populate. If literature profs and academic critics do not find them teachable enough to anthologize in textbooks and explicate in the classroom, or complex enough to write about in journals, they just die. In my never-ending battle to keep good short stories alive, I occasionally call the attention of my readers to short story collections that, in my opinion, deserve to be read.  Today, I highlight the first collection of Michael Byers, The Coast of Good Intentions, published in 1998.

Byers, born in 1971 in Seattle, Washington, received his B.A. degree from Oberlin College in Ohio and taught elementary school in Louisiana for two years in the Teach for America program. He received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Michigan and attended the writing program at Stanford University before moving back to Seattle. He was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University between 1996 and 1998.  His story "Settled on the Cranberry Coast" was selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories in 1995; "Shipmates Down Under" was selected for The Best American Short Stories in 1997. The Coast of Good Intentions was a finalist for the Hemingway/PEN Award and won the Whiting Award of $30,000, given to "emerging writers of exceptional talent and promise," in 1999.

The stories of Michael Byers belong to a tradition in the contemporary short story, represented by Ethan Canin's 1988 Emperor of the Air and Christopher Tilghman's 1990 In a Father's Place. Like Canin and Tilghman, Byers affirms, in a seemingly simple, matter-of-fact way, the solid, unsentimental values of family, commitment, and hope for the future.  This is, of course, the kind of fiction that John Gardner urged in his book Moral Fiction (1978) and that Raymond Carver embodied in his 1983 collection Cathedral, hailed as mellower and more hopeful than his earlier, so-called "minimalist" stories.

Byers focuses primarily on men who, although certainly not simple, are simply trying hard to do their best.  They are, like the retired school teacher in "Settled on the Cranberry Coast," still looking hopefully to the future, or, when they do look to the past, are like the elderly couple in "Dirigibles," reaffirmed rather than disappointed by where they have been.  When Byers takes on the persona of a woman, as he does in "A Fair Trade," once again, the past is perceived without regret, the present is accepted with equanimity, and the future is looked forward to with hope.  Even the self-absorbed father in "Shipmates Down Under," who should take responsibility for his troubled marriage, and the young widow in "Spain, One Thousand and Three," who has, for ego's sake, treated women as conquests, ultimately are simply human with all the frailties humans are heir to.

Such understanding, loving, and forgiving values are, of course, hard to resist, but they are also hard to present without either irony or sentimentality.  Byers manages to avoid both, giving the reader characters who are neither perfect nor petulant, neither ironically bitter nor blissfully ignorant, but who are rather complex and believable human beings simply doing their best, which, Byers seems to suggest, is simply the most human thing anyone can do. Here are some comments on the major stories in The Coast of Good Intentions

"Settled on the Cranberry Coast" is a satisfying story about second chances or the pleasant realization that it's never too late to live, "Settled on the Cranberry Coast" is narrated by Eddie, a bachelor who has just retired after teaching high school for twenty-seven years and has taken up part-time carpenter work.  When Rosie, an old high school acquaintance, who has also never married, hires him to repair an old house she has just bought, the story focuses quite comfortably on their inevitable gravitation toward each other.  Rosie not only fills Eddie's need for a caring companion, her six-year-old granddaughter Hannah, who lives with her, gives him the child he has never had.

As Eddie makes Rosie's house sturdier, their relationship  grows as well, gradually affirming Eddie's opening sentence in the story, "This I know; our lives in these towns are slowly improving."  Eddie can imagine moving in with Rosie and Hannah, thinking that we don't live our lives so much as come to them, as people and things "collect mysteriously" around us.  At the end of the story, Eddie invites Hannah to go to the next town with him to buy radiators.  In a simple scene handled perceptively and delicately by Byers, Eddie stands under a parking-lot overhang in the rain, smoothing the sleeping child's hair, her head "perfectly round" on his shoulder. In a Carveresque final sentence, he thinks he is "on the verge of something" as he waits there listening to Hannah's easy, settled breathing.

Because Byers was only in his twenties when he wrote these stories, reviewer made much of his understanding of older characters, such as Eddie in "Settled on the Cranberry Coast."  In "Dirigibles,"  Howard and Louise, in their late sixties and retired, are visited by James Couch, a friend from the old days, who is stopping on his way from Seattle to Montana.  Couch talks about his daughter hang-gliding in outer space, and Howard realizes that he has "gone a little way around the bend, and he wasn't coming back."  When Howard sets up a movie projector to show Couch old home movies from the time when they were friends, it turns out he has put in the wrong film; what they see instead is a very brief scene of Louise, young and thin and almost all legs, running naked from one doorway to another.  Howard and Louise both laugh, remembering the event when he came returned from the navy and she came to the door nonchalantly nude.

After putting Couch to bed, the couple lie awake, and Howard says he played the greatest concert halls in Germany before the war, with ten thousand women waiting on his every need; he tells Louise to think of him like that, and she says "yes."  He tells her he flew "great dirigibles of the age" over the "great nations of the earth," and she says "yes."  And in the last line, when he says "It's true.  Everything is true," she says, "Oh, Howard. Howard."  The conclusion is a great affirmative paean to love and union, much like the end of Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy in Joyce's Ulysses.
"Shipmates Down Under" focuses on the protagonist's relationship with his nine-year-old son, who seems principled and controlled; with his six-year-old daughter, who becomes mysteriously ill; and with his wife, who feels an outsider to his connection with the children.   Because the daughter's illness threatens to dominate the story, the underlying marital conflict, which is its real subject, does not become apparent until the end when the child improves just as mysteriously as she fell ill.

The boy, who intuits the unspoken conflict between the parents, says he is writing a sequel to a boy's adventure book his father has recommended, and urges his father to take his mother on a vacation, since their planned vacation to Perth, Australia, the father's home, has been cancelled by the daughter's illness.  When the protagonist talks to his wife about this, she calls him "Mister Distant, Mister Nowhere, Mr. Say Nothing," accusing him of living in his own little world with the children while pretending she does not exist.  Although he denies this, when he sees the first sentence of his son's sequel--"My father and I live in Perth in a tiny white house with a wall around the garden"--he feels a "little bloom of secretive joy" in his heart.  The story ends with his thinking that he will apologize to his wife and that they will make it.  However, when he imagines them finally taking their disrupted trip to Australia, what he thinks of is the children remembering the experience, the hotel standing strong and unchanging, "the solid keeper of my precious cargo, these two damaged packages of my detailed dreams."

The central character in the story, "In Spain, One  Thousand and Three," Martin Tuttleman, tries to cope with the loss of his wife at age twenty-five to cancer.  A computer game designer, he has been off work so long with her illness that he now, at least temporarily, works in the support department, giving phone advice to kids playing the game he helped design.  The primary focus of the story is Martin's constant sexual fantasies about women.  Before his marriage, he had slept with every woman he could, and thinks of himself as having had more sex than anyone he knew.  Now that his wife, who completely filled his sexual life during their marriage, is dead, he has begun to fantasize about other women again.

The central crucial event in the story is an ambiguous encounter with his mother-in-law in his wife's old bedroom.  When he takes one of his shirts out of her closet, the mother embraces him, and he compares the feel of her body to that of his wife.  They begin rubbing against each other, like "shy dancers" and then abruptly push away. The story ends with his father-in-law angrily confronting him, demanding that he apologize.  When he does so, he feels good, as if he were saying he is sorry to all the women he has seduced. 

"A Fair Trade" is the longest story in the collection, and covers the longest span of time, practically the whole life of the central character Andie, beginning at age fourteen with her trip to live with her aunt for a period after her father's death and her mother's emotional breakdown, and ending with a visit to her aunt some forty years later when she is in her fifties.  However, most of the story focuses on the time Andie lived with her aunt Maggie; the rest of her life is recounted in brief summary. 

During this period, Andie has fantasies about a mysterious European man who works for the elderly couple who live across the road.  The only real plot complications occur when Maggie's unscrupulous boyfriend, who, trying to get the elderly couple's farm, threatens to tell the authorities that the man has made sexual advances to Andie; when Maggie finds out, she sends the boyfriend packing.
The last part of the story covers Andie's life after she returns to her mother--summarizing her marriage, divorce, her daughter's going off to college, and finally her move back to Seattle when she is fifty-five.  Seeing her aunt's old boyfriend, now in his eighties, on television prompts a visit to her aunt, who has adopted a gay man, and who has a boyfriend in his seventies.  Although her aunt tells her she should have a man, Andie looks forward to twenty more years of being alone.  She feels she has made a "fair trade," that her way is not a bad way to live.  As she sits in a restaurant with her aunt and her adopted son, she shuffles her feet under the table, thinking that from other tables she may appear to be dancing.

Michael Byers has published two novels and several short stories in the last two decades and is an assistant professor of literature at the University of Michigan. The Coast of Good Intentions is a book that deserves to be read and reread.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

David Means: Master of the Short Story

The Secret Goldfish (2004) is David Means’ third book, and it goes against good economic sense, not to mention the probable pleas of his agent and publishers, that it is, once again, a book of short stories. Although his earlier collection, Assorted Fire Events (2000), won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction, was short listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and received rave reviews both in America and England, still it was just a collection of short stories.
 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 upThe Secret Goldfish  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 first paragraph of the first story, “Lightning Man,” makes clear that the realm of reality that matters for Means is sacramental, ritualistic, miraculous--a world in which the old reassurances, such as lightning never strikes twice in the same place, are shown to be nonsense. Here a man is struck seven times throughout his life by a powerful revelatory energy until he becomes a mythic creature, waiting for the inevitable eighth.
In the short-story world of David Means, a mundane tale of infidelity and divorce gets transformed by the metaphoric stillness of a neglected goldfish in a mucked-up tank, surviving in spite of the stagnation around it. Means’ short stories are seldom satisfied with linearity of plot and thus often become lists of connected mysteries. “Notable Dustman Appearances to Date” is a series of hallucinatory manifestations of famous faces in swirling dust kicked up by wind or smoke:  Nixon, Hemingway, Gogol, Jesus.
“Michigan Death Trips” is a catalog of catastrophic disruptions, as people abruptly disappear beneath the ice of a frozen lake, are suddenly struck on the highway, or hit by a stray bullet from nowhere.“Elyria Man," lays bare mummified bodies found lying beneath the soil, as if patiently waiting to embody some basic human fear or need.
In each of these stories, David Means reveals the truth of our lives the way great art always has—by making us see the world as it painfully is, not as our comfortable habits hide it from us. 
In an interview after the publication of his award-winning second collection, Assorted Fire Events (2000), Means said he feels that if you're really good at something you should keep doing it.  His fourth collection, The Spot (2010), thirteen new stories, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, Zoetrope, Harper’s, and other places, is just one more piece of evidence that Means is very good at what he does.
Since his first collection, A Quick Kiss of Redemption (1993), Means has largely moved away from Chekhovian realism, taking more chances with experimental narrative structure. Pursuing tactics begun in Assorted Fire Events and made more evident in his last collection, The Secret Goldfish (2004), Means takes increasing liberties in The Spot with storytelling techniques to explore the nature and importance of storytelling itself.
Two stories in The Spot focus on tramps gathered around a campfire spinning yarns.  In “The Blade,” the central character, Ronnie, hesitates about telling his peers his “blade story,” for he knows it will involve making explanations about how he spent a couple of years with an old tramp named Hambone, which would expose the old tramp to the ridicule of the men.  Ronnie’s blade story centers on his waking up one morning with Hambone holding a knife at his throat, insisting that if Ronnie does not believe the good things he has told him about his mother, he will kill him.  However, Hambone has told Ronnie two stories: one characterizing his mother as a wonderful woman and another, two months earlier, in which he said she did not have a decent bone in her body.  Even though Ronnie tries to placate Hambone by agreeing that his mother was a great woman, the old man does not let up; Ronnie is forced to turn the knife and kill him, making his blade story one in which he wields the weapon.
Means’ second hobo story, “The Junction,” is considerably lighter, but no less focused on the importance of storytelling. The central character is a man named Lockjaw, who, like all hoboes whose lives depend on telling convincing stories, knows that one has to spin out a yarn and keep it spinning until the food is in your belly and you are out the door.  The story, which has to be just right, is drawn not from one’s own life, but from an amalgamation of other tales the teller has heard in the past, within which he must weave his own needs.  Lockjaw tells the other tramps about spinning a story at the kitchen table of a family who is feeding him. When the husband asks him if he has taken Jesus as his savior, Lockjaw responds a little too fast to be believed, and the man goes upstairs and gets his gun. However, the wife cajoles her husband and tells Lockjaw that if he returns, she will set out a piece of pie for him on the windowsill.  The story ends with Lockjaw’s coming back for the pie, which may or may not be the subject of another story.
In addition to hoboes and tramps, Means explores in three stories another group of characters who live their lives on the road--thieves and scam artists. “Nebraska,” told with Means’ usual flawless syntax, focuses on a young woman who is involved in an armored truck robbery in Nebraska, engineered by a man named Byron, with whom she lives.  These are amateurs, members of the underground in the late 1960s, planning the robbery to finance bomb making to demolish the status quo, with Byron spouting a lot of rhetoric about striking out against the corrupt system.  Although they make careful plans to execute the robbery, at the crucial moment when Bryon and his partner shoot two Brinks guards, the central female character, in charge of the getaway car, panics and drives away, leaving them literally holding the bag.  The central tension in the story is the young woman’s romantic identification with Depression era thieves, Bonnie and Clyde—not the real bank robbers, however, but Faye Dunaway and Warren Beattie in the movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”
“The Botch” is a more explicit exploration of the gap between the plan and the execution of a robbery. The key phrase, which opens the story, and which is repeated throughout is, “The idea is…” And the basic idea of the thieves in this story, also amateurs, is to “to tap into the old traditions” of the bank heist, in which they see themselves as Robin Hoods, trying to free money from the big syndicates.  The thieves must act formally, like movie stars, playing their roles and thus avoid the typical “botches” that might make the robbery fail.  However, again at the crucial moment, the central character sees a woman on the street in a tight red skirt, stumbling in her high heels, and is distracted, causing him and his partner to shoot an old man in the bank.  After they escape, the central character wants to return to the scene of the crime, approach the woman, and shift the burden of the botch to her.
A more explicit treatment of the gap between the vision and the event is “Oklahoma,” in which a man named Lester picks up two young women and teaches them how to scam stores by picking up receipts in the parking lot, grabbing goods in the store, and returning them for cash back.  The central point-of-view character is a young woman named Genevieve, who is taken in by Lester’s blustering talk of making a movie. Throughout the story, she sees their lives as if they are actors in a film being made, in which they move about in a fake movie night that’s not dark enough to be real, with fake snow on their shoulders, refusing to melt. 
The title story, "The Spot," is about another on the-road couple--Shank, a lost sixties soul who cannot extricate himself from a high, and Meg, a fifteen-year old kid he has picked up and pimps for a seed salesman. The title comes from Shank telling Meg that there is a spot out on the lake, a “suck” where the Cleveland water supply is drawn in.  She thinks about that spot while the john is having sex with her.  After Meg chokes the john to death on his own string tie, Shank takes her to Niagara Falls and pushes her over. The real story is not these horrific events, but, as usual, Means’ masterful telling of them.  In a story within the story, Shank tells the half-sleeping Meg about a man named Ham who lived in an old hobo hangout with a girl who Shank fancies.  Offering to baptize her, Shank has her take off her clothes and holds her down in the water.  When Ham comes running to the stream, Shank holds her down too long and drowns her.
 “A River in Egypt” is a story of one of those terrifying periods between suspicion and confirmation of the worst. The central character Cavanaugh, has taken his son to be tested in a sweat room for cystic fibrosis.  The title derives from the child’s toy called the Question Cube, for which one of the questions is, “What river is in Egypt?”  Means may be playing a little word game on the old pun of “denial,” for this is a delicate story about a father trying to deny or forestall the dreaded test results. The story ends with a moment when the father, who has been concerned with his own anxiety about the future, shifts his attention to the boy lying in the back seat of the car to focus on a luminous present.
“Reading Chekhov” is a version of Chekhov’s famous “Lady with a Pet Dog.”  The story is told in brief sections that move back and forth between the man, who is a 35-year-old part-time student at a seminary, and the woman who is married with a daughter.  They know they are part of the overall tradition of adultery, reading “The Lady with the Pet Dog” together and comparing themselves to Chekhov’s lovers. When walking in the park, the woman’s heel stick in the soft ground and she falls, breaking the bone just above her ankle. She tells her husband she did it stepping off the curb—a lie that makes her decide to end the affair.  Like Chekhov’s famous story, this is a perceptive exploration of the subtle complexities of adultery.
Means is often concerned with essential mysteries that defy explanation. “Facts Toward Understanding the Spontaneous Human Combustion of Errol McGee” is an account told in separate sections of the spontaneous combustion of a man sitting in a chair looking out a window.  The different sections suggest various theories to account for this inexplicable mystery, e.g. the hair ointment the man wears, a sympathetic reaction to his son’s death by napalm during the war, the white heat of memory of a past showgirl lover. This is a story about essential mystery and symbolic explanations, for only symbolic explanations can account for the inscrutable.
In “The Gulch,” three teenage boys crucify another boy on a homemade cross set up in a gulch to see if he will rise from the dead.  The focus of the story is on various possible explanations for the murder, as news commentators and professors try to find reasons and precedents for the crime.  A detective named Collard, who is investigating the case, thinks that when he retires full of stories, the incident in the gulch will be the classic one he pulls out of his hat when the conversation gets boring.  He knows, however, that his job now is to find out who dreamed up the idea and made it true.  Making an idea come true and making stories out of inexplicable acts constitute the themes of many of David Means’ stories in The Spot
“The Knocking,” the shortest story in the collection, is in many ways one of the most complex. The first-person male narrator complains of knocking noises from the man who lives in an identical apartment above him. We know nothing about the narrator or the noisy neighbor—just a lot about the nature of the knocking—until three quarters through the story when the narrator says that the knocking often comes late in the day when the man above knows that he is in his deepest state of reverie, feeling a persistent sense of loss of his wife and kids.  In the last two paragraphs, the narrator begins to identify with the knocker, remembering when he had gone around, fixing things at his own house, trying to keep it in shape. “The Knocking” is about having nothing worthwhile to do, and thus engaging in an activity that is irritating, but that you cannot cease doing.  The rhythm of the story echoes the repetitive, annoying, meaningless actions.  Means creates a timeless universality here that allows the reader to become deeply embedded in the story, caught up in a language event that is, paradoxically, both a personal obsession and an aesthetic creation.

David Means’ unerring ability to transform the seemingly casual into the meaningful causal is what makes him a master of the short story, placing him in the ranks of other great short story writers such as Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro, who stubbornly resisted pressure to desert their chosen form for the more highly prized novel.