The Spot: Stories by David Means
David Means is a writer that works best and most often in short story form. In several collections of short fiction and frequent publication in Harpers, The New Yorker and other such journals, Means has proven expert at capturing snapshots of American life, one peculiar situation and place at a time. With precise, muscular writing, his stories document the unsettling events that you hear about on someone else’s evening news: a teenage crucifixion in graying Bay City, Michigan in “The Gulch”; the fiery death, outlined like a police report with the whispery tinge of small-town gossip, in “Facts Toward Understanding the Spontaneous Human Combustion of Errol McGee.”
His latest collection, The Spot, features pieces that are strong enough on their own, but also support the argument that stories are best read as the author and editor first intended: set in a collection, if not in direct conversation with each, then in an easy union, like artworks in a gallery exhibition.
Told through layered points of view, “The Blade” hones in on a young drifter at a camp fire, as he thinks back to another campside experience that haunts him and the other tramps trade anecdotes. The experience of reading “The Blade,” which appears early in the book, is further enhanced by the closer “The Junction.” Here, another young man, on another set of railroad tracks, recounts another encounter he can’t shake -- one that reminds him of the home and family he left. He’s nameless, which might make you think he is the same as the one in “The Blade,” if he were not as hale and gregarious as first young man is somber.
“The spot” in Means’s book refers to particular places for each of his characters. These include the aforementioned railroad junctions and campsites, Upper Manhattan apartments where lovers meet and madmen reside and hideouts in dusty Plains towns. While scattered across the country, most are connected by the crumbling stretches of highway that cut through the Rust Belt -- if not always physically, then in by way of deep, cosmic metaphor. Many of these stories are set in the Midwest, in and around cheerless, all-alike towns, and even those that not, the characters within are marked by a feeling of unshakeable bleakness that anyone who has spent considerable time in the Midwest would know. (Means grew up in Michigan, as did this reviewer.) It’s a bleakness that is not a lack of other things, because you can detect almost a physical presence there, like coal, like heavy, murky water; it’s a feeling that one must go on because there’s not much else to do but go on, when an end or a better option might not exist.
But Means’s work is more about people than place. About his fiction, Adrienne Miller previously noted in Esquire, "These are stories about loneliness … about the difficulty of human connections it's certainly worth noting that the most intense relationships these characters seem to have are with the dead and yet, wonder of wonders, they remain, above all else, generous, redemptive, and hopeful."
And in The Spot, Means wills incredible dynamicism out of the characters he has forced into depressed scenarios. For however many dead-ends and deaths fill The Spot, there’s a charm and lightness in the stories -- though those aspects often emerge at tragicomic moments. In the title story, there’s both fear and laughter in the voice of the abused teenage prostitute with “delicate neckline… shallowless gaze,” when she recounts accidentally murdering a john in a Bible belt motel room: “He had that string tie on the whole time, and it kept bugging me… I dug a knee into a his ribs, tightened the bolo tie around his throat, and rode him like a bronco until he stopped moving.”
A few pages earlier, in “Nebraska,” a fated-to-fail radical revolution goes awry when the young woman who is roped into the scheme honks the car horn for a second too long -- her gun-toting accomplices shouting and waving wildly at her to stop. There’s an almost cruel, loopy humor as she tries to make a getaway, hitting an old lady with her car in the process.
The characters in The Spot display great tenderness, too, such as when the young man in “The Junction” almost wishes that the house he had stumbled upon was his own, and the couple inside his parents. Elsewhere, in “A River in Egypt,” a father’s anxiety about his young son’s possible diagnosis builds with an ugly intensity on the car ride home from the hospital. But this gives way to a temporary respite as he remembers the still-very-much-alive “sweet presence in the backseat, which came to him in the form of a soft snore… then sa[ying], ‘Are we home? Are we home now, Dad?’”
In Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter, another attuned chronicler of the Midwest, the character Diana says, “Because it’s the Midwest, no one really glitters because no one has to, it’s more a dull shine, like frequently used silverware… But that’s liberating: it frees you up for other matters of greater importance, the great themes, the sordid passions.” She’s at a nice suburban garden party in this particular scene, not exactly “a spot” that would work for the majority of Means’s characters. But I would argue that Diana’s sentiment can be appropriated for these people, with a slight change of intention: The stories, the themes and the passions, are the things that are going to stay with the other characters and the reader, long after the drifters and sad-eyed girls have faded away.
The Spot: Stories by David Means
Faber and Faber