The Spot: Stories by David Means

David Means is an accomplished, if not particularly well-known, short story writer. I chose to give his most recent collection a try based on its inclusion on the Tournament of Books longlist for 2011. I was disappointed in that the collection was not chosen for the ToB, but was pleased, if not overwhelmed, by the stories it contained.

I was immediately won over by “The Knocking” and its humor.

Upstairs he stops for a moment, just to let the tension build, and then he begins again, softer at first, going east to west and then east again, heading toward the Fifth Avenue side of the building, pausing to get his bearings, to look out at the view, I imagine, before heading west, pausing overhead to taunt me before going back into motion for a few minutes, setting the pace with a pendulous movement, following the delineation of the apartment walls – his the same as mine, his exactly the same – and then there is another pause….

The description of the knocking goes on for a bit longer, but you get the idea, both of the knocking and of the narrator who is describing it. At this early point, there are still the questions of whether the knocker is intent on taunting and of whether the knocking would be annoying to anyone. The questions linger while we learn something of the knocker:

He was the kind of knocker who would learn a fresh technique, a way of landing his heel on the floor, of lifting his toes and letting them rattle a board, and work with a calisthenic efficiency – all bones and sinew – to transmit the sound via the uncarpeted prewar floorboards, woody, resonant oak solid enough to withstand the harder strikes. Above all, he not only took knocking seriously but went beyond that to a realm of pure belief in the idea that by being persistent over the long term and knocking only for the sake of knocking – in other words, blanking me at least temporarily out of his consciousness, and in doing so forgetting the impulse (our brief meeting last year) for starting in the first place – he could take a leap of faith and increase his level of conentration – pure rapture – and, in turn, his ability to sustain the knocking over the long run.

The delusion of a Nabokovian narrator, so exquisite because, possibly, the narrator is not delusional. Means holds the cards close throughout, releasing them expertly for maximum effect. I truly loved this story. The downside of that is that the rest of the collection could not hope to equal this one.

Do not get me wrong, there are other very good stories. “The Blade” is the second and, perhaps, my second favorite in the collection. It begins with a group of homeless men hanging out around a fire, passing a bottle, and telling stories. The stories become stories about knives and Ronnie has one, perhaps the best one. He holds onto it, waiting through silences when the others expect him to tell it.

Another blade-to-the-throat story stood at the ready, the men sensed. They caught a vibe in the static holding pattern the banter had taken, in the way that Ronnie held off on his turn to speak. They were sure he had a blade story!

While dribbling out details, including hints of Ronnie’s relationship with an old man called Hambone, Means fills in back story that Ronnie does not want to share to the other men. What is particularly engaging is how Means tells a story about telling a story in a way that both explains how a good story is told and demonstrates how a good story is told. The importance of including specific details to create credulity. By the end, the reader is as hungry for the story as those down-and-out men around the fire.

The collection freely shares characters from one story to another, intertwining lives and slowly revealing a large mosaic. This is not true of all the stories, but many of them. Sometimes, there is just a glimpse of how the stories connect, but, in that instant, the world Means has created gains a skosh of authenticity. Means works almost exclusively in the short form and his expertise in his craft shows.

For a third sample from this collection, you can try “A River in Egypt” which is about a father whose son may have cystic fibrosis. The father is inept and sometimes ugly, but this enhances his humanity and the emotion of the piece. These three stories to which I have linked provide a fair cross-section of the range and tone of the collection. While The Spot: Stories did not bowl me over with originality, it did impress me with its author’s storytelling ability. I am a little disappointed this work did not make the jump from the ToB longlist to the shortlist. I would have enjoyed reading a judge’s reaction to it.

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8 Responses to The Spot: Stories by David Means

  1. Nice to see you enjoying one, so it is a shame it didn’t make the shortlist. Was there any comment on why those who made it did? Presumably not.

    • Kerry says:

      It is a shame The Spot did not make it to the ToB shortlist. They do not give reasons for choosing the books they do rather than other specific books. Sometimes they do mention why they pick a particular book, but usually that is the hyped ones (Freedom, Goon Squad, etc.). It can be a bit random (I say this confidently as those choosing almost never have read all of the longlist). The fact that this was a story collection did not help, I am sure.

  2. It’s a real shame that short stories get such short shrift – and we readers are to blame a lot because so many of us (present company excepted) say we don’t like them. Why don’t we, do you reckon? Not only can they offer some wonderful writing and clever execution of ideas, but they can be very useful things to read when time is short. There are quite a few short story prizes around (at least in Australia and I’m sure elsewhere) but it’s really only when they get listed by teh “big” fiction prizes that they get noticed.

    All that’s to say, this sounds like a good read Kerry, even if not even all through.

    • Kerry says:

      Whispering, it is a shame that short stories tend not to get as much respect or readership. I have to confess that I have been guilty of some discrimination against the short form. A well written short story collection can drill as deeply as a novel, something I have not always appreciated. As with novels, we sometimes equate length with intellectual or aesthetic weight, though I have come to the point that I am starting to assume the opposite. Of course, I shouldn’t assume anything and just let the works speak for themselves…..but I start with a bit of distrust when an author has the audacity to suggest that she has 600+ pages of brilliance to share with me. I have my doubts that many authors can pull off that much novel coherently.

      This particular collection is certainly not the best I have ever read, but it does include some very good stories. David Means knows his way around the short form. I can recommend this collection and will be keeping my eye out for other work of his.

  3. Michelle says:

    This collection sounds really good. Thank you for the longish quotes…I love the narrator in The Knocking. Adding this one to the list!

    • Kerry says:

      Michelle, Thanks for stopping to comment. You are very welcome for the “longish” quotes. I wanted to try to give a good sense of that first story (which is available online) because (a) I really enjoyed it and (b) I think it is likely a fair barometer of whether a reader will like the collection. That is not to say it is the most “typical” of the stories. It is one of the most unique and one of the best. If you like it, I think it is worth the trouble checking out the collection. Each of those to which I linked are worth checking out, at least.

  4. When I was a kid in the ’80s science fiction publishers would routinely disguise short story collections as novels – the back blurb all referring to one story in the collection with no reference to the fact it was one of (say) twelve. There was if anything even more resistance to the form in SF fandom than literary.

    That resistance was (and is, it continues today) a real shame because that’s how an awful lot of the best science fiction writers got their early breaks. Also, as a genre SF is well suited to short stories – often a writer has one neat idea and a short story is about right to cover that. I’ve read more than one SF novel where one idea has been stretched much thinner than it ought to have been.

    Still, actively mismarketing is not I think the right answer. If anything it breeds yet more resentment of the form.

    Thinking about it, I’m not aware of the short story being that popular with crime readers either (though that does seem to me a genre more naturally suited to the longer form). It seems regardless of what people like to read, they like to read it in single long instalments rather than multiple shorter ones.

    Like you Kerry I discriminate against the form myself. It’s stupid though. I loved the Maile Meloy collection. I wonder where this prejudice comes from.

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