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.   

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