David Means, who will participate in the Nantucket Book Festival in June, is an American short story writer who has published four collections and whose work often appears first in The New Yorker, The Paris Review or Zoetrope. His second book, Assorted Fire Events, which received a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and was a finalist for the Book Critics Circle Award when it appeared in 2000, has just been reissued.
Means’s story often deal with a troubled segment of American life, often with the lives of people who are angry, haunted, or astray. He also has a fascination, let it be said, with mortality, especially with its precariousness. In one story here, a moment of inattention and a young boy is swept from his canoe and drowns beneath the deadfall in a river. In “Railroad Incident, August 1995,” a distraught man, spavined by the death of his wife, wanders at night where he shouldn’t and is set upon by violent young men. And in “Sleeping Bear Lament,” Sam, a poor, unhappy young man romping with friends by Lake Michigan, is buried by a collapsing dune and is thought to have just gone missing.
In some of these stories the primary focus is on the central incident, often a personal disaster or a near miss. In others, our attention is drawn mainly to a person dealing with or meditating on what’s happened. Means’s vibrant prose, with its rich imagery, is very careful in the way it aims to impart the truth of each scene. Descriptions, images, emotions–in these stories, everything no matter how precise it seems–or how fitting, satisfying–is subject to slight recasting for accuracy as the narrative progresses.
In “What They Did,” the process and materials with which a construction crew working in a woodsy, suburban development hastily covers a stream the developer wants to erase from the landscape are revisited a number of times. It’s keenly important information because the workers’ slapdash job later causes the death of a little girl who is swallowed by the very ground. And there are several other instances in this volume of pits in the earth that wait to receive the unwary. There one second, gone the next is how one TV news station reports this shocking event.
We are told, of course, of the girls’ mother’s grief in that story, and some of the details of the ensuing litigation, but the story runs off toward its end with Ralph Hightower, the foreman on that reckless job, pondering his portion of guilt. Such secondary figures often appear in these stories to mourn or to lament, occasionally to rescue. Some of them, like Ralph, are “real” characters in the story, while others are the products of characters’ daydreams or hallucinations. In “The Grip,” a drifter caught between freight cars when the train unexpectedly begins to move, has to hold on precariously through a cold night as the train makes its way from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. Through the night he is sustained in holding on by the vision of his mother encouraging him.
The narrator of “Sleeping Bear Lament” harbors guilt over never having apologized to Sam for having injured him in a stupid act once when they were young. After Sam’s death he plans a pilgrimage to the dunes to repent for those lost teeth and imagines that the discovery of Sam’s body was made by a guy named Mel, a compassionate worker for the Department of Natural Resources. He conjures a son of his own for Mel, who is moved to pray for Sam, and the narrator realizes that “Sam will have received more love than ever before in his life” from this product of his imagination.
David Means is not unaware of your unease when reading these stories, however gorgeously written, and he has the narrator of “What I Hope For” open that two-page story with the statement “I don’t want anyone to die in my stories anymore.” The reader might be thankful for that, but will be made perhaps a little uneasy by the closing lines, wherein the couple in the story will, if all goes well, take leave by boat from the island where they’ve spent the weekend, “the gulls dashing above the wake, and the wake itself smoothing out from the v., fading off into the eternal uproar of the North Atlantic.” Of course, we know all about that eternal uproar, but it takes on a new vividness and urgency in this author’s distinctive prose.