By David Means
Faber and Faber, $23.00, 166 pages
It’s always interesting, I think, to notice the way in which we first discover the fine work of seriously gifted short story writers and novelists. Most of them don’t start out with large audiences, and most of them never get very far in building the kind of reader base that puts their names on the lips of the county’s best readers. So that while four short story collections over the course of nearly twenty years, short story collections of exceptional quality, should have made David Means something resembling if not a household word at least a name bruited about by aspiring writers in writing workshops, writing programs, and other such venues, he’s hardly there yet.
But look at what he’s done. His second collection, Assorted Fire Events, won a Los Angeles Times prize and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award. His third collection, a book with the (to me, alas, off-putting) title of 'The Secret Goldfish,' showed off some fine fine work.
Means is more than a conventionally accomplished realistic story writer. As I’ve written before in these pages, his fiction sometimes skitters up to the borderline of legend, and all the traditional rules of story-making—focusing on clear beginnings, middle struggles, and sharp recognitions at the end—now and then fade into the hazy air of Midwest thunderstorm and boiling sky, as in the story “Lightning Man” from 'The Secret Goldfish.' But when he wants to he can produce work that holds up even in comparison with his most gifted ancestors like Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, employing some of the most sharp-edged and beautifully spare language of any writer of his generation. The stories in 'The Spot' show him working at the top of his powers, which doesn’t mean flat-out, highly plot-driven fast-rushing short fiction, even though he often focuses on characters (many from the Midwest) who live at the lower end of the social scale and make their way in the world by hook and by crook, often caught up in situations (crime, drugs, adultery) that usually lend themselves to straightforward realism. But Means’ style couldn’t be further away from the crude and the lewd. He writes a forceful, if not entirely elegant, often effectively muscular sentence that gives us the minds and hearts of the characters from angles quite oblique and in rhythms often hypnotic.
The title story takes on the depiction of where mad vision crosses the line into murder, and it’s told, in lucid killing fashion, from a sociopath’s point of view. There is a spot, “a little pucker”, as we hear it described, “on the surface out there…where the Cleveland water supply is drawn in, right there, and if you were to dump enough poison on that spot you’d kill the entire city…”. Means gives us the impression in this story of pathetic mayhem and murder that he’s hit that spot.
In "Reading Chekhov", Means’ version of the classic story of modern adultery, Chekhov’s “Lady with the Pet Dog”, we learn in brief bursts of paragraphs of the affair between a thirty-five year old student at New York City’s Union Seminary and a married female officer worker who commutes thirty miles each way every day. They even read “Lady with the Pet Dog” together while lying on a blanket on the grass in the park near Grant’s tomb. That should suggest to us how the affair will end, though Means’ story turns out to be a memorial to the immediate passions of adultery rather than a tomb for such hopes for forceful love.
Botched crimes, an amateur but deadly crucifixion of a high school boy by his friends, at least one “fire event” (which recounts, as the title tells it, “The Facts Toward Understanding the Spontaneous Human Combustion of Errol McGee”, an alcoholic former Midwestern businessman who goes up in flames), and a deeply pathetic but terribly moving account of a father trying to come to terms with the possibility of his child’s devastating illness—these make up the matter of the stories, all of them worked through in Means’ by now distinctive style.
All the stories show off a deep and enduring talent for imitating complexity without usually turning so opaque that the reader does not know where to look. With this new collection readers with a taste for high art in the short story will want to place him up there with writers such as Evan Connell, James Salter, and, from a slightly younger generation, Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford. Yes, I know that list might suggest that Means is more a man’s writer than anything else. But he’s not. He’s a human writer, and should become part of your reader’s lexicon.
Alan Cheuse’s most recent book, "To Catch the Lightning" is out in paperback.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun