What To Read In March 2019: Mr David Means
The lauded short story writer tackles challenging social issues with masterful skill in his latest collection. Here’s why it’s worth your time
Early on in Instructions For A Funeral, the new short story collection by New York State-based author Mr David Means, two words make us realise we’re in for something special. The words are “years later”, and when they first appear, in “Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950”, they seem innocuous, an incidental piece of character detail about a woman watching a fight between a bratty rich kid and a farm worker. As the story progresses, though, “years later” becomes the axis around which the narrative spins.
The fight itself, it turns out, is less important than the way it is remembered – “a few days later”; “three weeks later”; “much later”; “a few years later” – and the story of the fight, what it was about, who felt what at the time, also changes and shifts as we hop back and forth between the action of the event, and how, “years later”, it is considered in hindsight. In fact, the woman watching the fight is destined to marry one of the two combatants – the moment portrayed is the one where they first crossed eyes, and so, is pivotal in more ways than one. In fact, we have already been warned, on the second page of the story, of the fight’s significance:
“The point of a fight like this was to reverse the flow of time, to reduce everything to an affect and cause, and in doing so, to erase the everyday tedium of time. Everything that happened before the jab meant something. Everything after the jab gathered meaning in the moments before it was created.”
It’s presumably no mistake that this is one of the first stories in the collection: the fistfight, seen in this way, serves as a pretty good intro to what’s to come, the vertiginous way with time that’s a hallmark of Mr Means’ fiction. Indeed, however short they may be, these tales of ruined masculinity, fatherhood, homelessness and addiction always seem to carry a universe of hopes and regrets along with them that spread across past, present and future.
In “Farewell, My Brother”, a group of recovering addicts smoke at the edge of a parking lot and realise “a keen sense of destiny”, foreseeing the inevitable futures of relapse and disaster that they will face, in a world beyond the story. In “The Mighty Shannon”, the narrator relates a conversation with his wife, in therapy, that he has both imagined having, and turned out to have had. (“The pain was in need of a nurse, of a certain kind of touch, I’d explain (and I did). She was good with the pain, I imagined I might say, and I did say.”)
In the titular story, “Instructions For A Funeral”, a corrupt property developer does just that, issuing his demands for his last rites in detailed, vindictive and bullet-pointed lists, projecting into the future while explaining, in the present, why the funeral may, ultimately, be imminent. That the author manages to keep all these timelines, real and imagined, under control, and condensed into such a short space, is crucial to the delight and poignancy of experiencing them.
“I’m not so much a chronological thinker,” writes Mr Means, over email, when asked to explain. “I think if you don’t weave around, if you don’t try to expand the story outward into time, the reader feels constricted. If you don’t do something with time, if you don’t find a way into the complexity, the story feels short.”
What’s more, he says such shifts in time are, of course, simply a reflection of how we, as organic, emotional creatures, experience it. The story of the fistfight, for example, was inspired by two things: a friend, who, growing up in 1950s California, “had a lot of those experiences”, but also the first moment Mr Means saw his own wife. “That’s how it works,” he says. “I caught sight of my wife playing Frisbee in a field at our college; just saw her from behind at first, and then she turned around and our eyes touched. Now we’ve been together for 30 years, but looking back at that very first moment – and she looked amazing – it seems supercharged with this fantastic, prophetic energy, and it was.”
When it comes to the short story, Mr Means has some serious pedigree. Published in 2000, his second collection, Assorted Fire Events, received rave reviews, won plaudits from the likes of Mr Jonathan Franzen, and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He’s since released two more excellent collections, The Secret Goldfish (2004) and The Spot (2010). More recently, he’s been in the news for his debut novel, Hystopia, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2016. But, if Instructions For A Funeral is anything to go by, he’s clearly not done exploring the possibilities of short fiction.
This particular collection, he says, was 10 years in the making. “My approach to putting together a collection has always been a bit like the way bands used to make record albums back in the days of vinyl,” he writes. “The stories have to resonate off of each other, form a complete experience. I’ll hold a story for a long time and wait until I can fit it in to the proper order.”
Coming after the death of both his parents, it’s also his “most personal” collection yet, he says. “The Terminal Artist” is inspired by a friend of his who was killed by a nurse – horrifically, a serial killer – in hospital. “Confessions” and “Carver And Cobain” both contain interventions directly from the author, explaining the how and why of these stories’ construction. And there’s more, throughout: “With the death of my parents I began to think: why not get some of your own life into the stories,” says Mr Means. “I’ve been writing about my older sister, who has been in mental hospitals and, once, in jail, for years in my stories. Not directly, but through the characters. This time I just got a little closer to real life.”
If all this sounds a little downbeat: it is. It’s kind of the point. But there’s also a sense of quiet heroism in Mr Means’ stories, a sense that, whatever the circumstances and consequences, these stories need to be told, and will be told, emerging in forms that are twisted, or confused, but nonetheless vital. You see it in the characters themselves, how they spin out tales to keep each other distracted, or sane, or, in a manner, alive. In “The Ice Committee” a veteran named Kurt huddles by the Soo Locks in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, rehashing memories to his friend Merle “to get a grip on a postwar rage so tremendous it had seemed mesmerizing.” In “The Butler’s Lament”, a man suffering from delusions that he had “been a butler to Lord Leitrim, or Lord Byron,” obsessively and conflictingly recounts episodes from his time as a “tool-and-die man” in Detroit. Elsewhere, stories are weaponised: in “El Morro”, a woman is lectured by a man on her own story, despite the fact that “he made up most of it from the few facts she had given him back in California.”
“My characters are on the edge,” says Mr Means. “They’re out in the hinterlands, they’re lost and trying to figure out how to stay alive, to live – and I’m drawing a bit from my own life. I’ve had family members who were homeless, and recently someone in my family became addicted to heroin, what they now like to call opiates, so I’ve listened and watched people in this condition, and when they tell stories, they often meander and sometimes get delusional. The stories we tell, and the ones we tell ourselves, are tools we use, and sometime we use the wrong tool, or the tools get beat up and bent around some trauma.”
This, then, is both the justification and the necessity for Mr Means’ labyrinthine way with narrative, his stretching and condensing of time. Going along on the journey with him, seeing the expertise with which he evokes these stories, these traumas, it’s easy to see why he’s often hailed as one of the talents taking the American short story forwards. As to that word, “American” – it’s levelled at Mr Means on the cover of Instructions For A Funeral, by another American great, Ms Joyce Carol Oates. Mr Means is “a master of tense, distilled, quintessentially American prose,” runs the line. But what does that mean to him, in this day and age? “I’m not sure what that means,” he says. “But let me say that I think it might mean charged up, language that is struggling with the energy necessary to grapple with this huge, messed up, behemoth of a country.”