The Duke of Discomfort
David Means’s fictional worlds are ominous, pre-apocalyptic, the hiss after a match is struck but before it ignites.
A few of the universe’s hard truths: We all care what other people think of us. You will eventually become your parents. There is a point at which women are too old to wear toe rings and men are too old to wear their favorite quarterback’s jersey. And every reader—no matter how intellectually curious, emotionally receptive, or compulsively voyeuristic—has a comfort zone. When an author breaks that boundary, the reader is forced to come to terms with the limits of their own adventurous nature.
If it sounds as though David Means’s newest collection of short stories, The Spot, forced me into my own literary panic room—if it sounds as though I’m fighting for some sense of ownership over these stories—well, it did, and I am. Means was put on earth to frustrate creative writing teachers and John Gardner evangelists: His characters don’t change. A lot of his action happens in flashback. His violence borders on the grotesque. He can take or leave paragraphs as structural units of composition. And he rarely, if ever, allows for immersion into fiction’s “vivid and continuous dream.”
Yet to read The Spot is to understand that these rules were made to be broken—or, in Means’s case, to be pistol whipped, dragged into a quarry, shot twice in the head, and set on fire.
Perhaps it’s too easy to say that these thirteen stories—his first collection since 2004’s The Secret Goldfish—are like compressed novels, but Means’s style is defined by tangents and parentheticals, a wandering narrative consciousness usually reserved for writers with three hundred pages to fill. Often, this omniscience works to the structural benefit of the story, as in “The Knocking,” where a man obsesses over the constant, rhythmic noise in his upstairs neighbor’s apartment. The knocking is so relentless that Means’s slippery narrative detours serve as the character’s only way to cope.
Unlike most novels, though, these stories lack a sense of cause and effect, forward progression; where we end up is usually right where we started. As a result, spontaneity and choice feel absent in the characters’ lives—and this stasis has the ring of truth. “The Actor’s House” explores the charisma of a Marlon Brando-esque figure in his late-life decline, the man reflected in his home and in the speculation of his community:
Some imagined, passing, he had been helplessly buoyant upon the raging sea of his talents so that, in turn, he could only garner a sense of control over his life by not acting, or by taking bit roles that were far beneath his talents, forcing his so-called genius into small, ill-fitting characters the same way he now squeezed into his ill-fitting clothes.
(Is Means knocking Brando’s turn as Jor-El in Superman? Let’s not go saying things we can’t take back…)
Means’s fictional worlds are ominous, pre-apocalyptic, the hiss after a match is struck but before it ignites. A typical hillside is, “silent and gritty, with condoms curled like snakeskins in the weeds, and the ash craters, and the used needles, glinting in the moonlight.” He’s a biographer of violence, interested in how blunt force trauma shapes human development as surely as technology or political elections—characters are beaten, shot, stabbed, drowned, tortured, crucified, and spontaneously combusted. And he has some curious signature obsessions: bank robbers, fire, hoboes. A previous collection, Assorted Fire Events, included a memorable story, “The Grip,” about a tramp whose essence lay in the way he clings to a cross-country train car. In The Spot, “The Blade” and “The Junction” both convey a sense of the almost religious importance of stories and performance in that singular community.
The collection’s best is “The Botch,” in which a Tommy gun wielding gangster pores over the details of a botched bank robbery, taking us from the elements of crowd control and the skillful dispersion of fear amongst the tellers to the mysterious appearance of a gorgeous woman who may (or may not) have derailed the whole operation. The issue of the man’s compulsion to rob in the first place is cast aside; instead, he obsesses over his failure to execute the plan, and what he would do if he saw the woman again:
The idea was to let her know that she had been moving through life the way a fish moves through water, unable to see the fluid, unable to sort out the large picture. The idea would be to somehow shift the burden of the botch from my shoulders to her shoulders, heaving it like a duffle loaded with bones of the dead.
We may not be able to find our way out of the darkness of these stories, but we always leave with a deep and sobering understanding of why the lights are out.
Most realist fiction aims to give readers access to the interior lives of characters. By contrast, Means’s cool, measured approach trains us to be exceptional observers of the world around us. Though he’s often compared to writers like Raymond Carver and Alice Munro and Tobias Wolff, I’d pair him with the fantastical Steven Millhauser, whose stories assume a level of scenic detail you might think impossible until you see it on the page. Though their subject matter and sensibilities differ wildly, both Means and Millhauser exert an iron will over the page. Consider Means’s paragraph-free, monolithic chunks of exposition that sometimes run seven pages long: As a reader, you’re not going to go anywhere he doesn’t want you to go. And if that makes you uncomfortable, then you’re starting to get the idea.