Friday, July 02, 2010

The Situation Room

The Spot: Stories by David Means. Faber and Faber. 164 pages. $23.00

John Cheever said somewhere that the great thing about a short story is that it offers a quick payoff: it delivers up front all the drama that a novel makes you wait around for. This tight, tough collection by David Means seems to take this fact as a guiding principle. Each story puts the reader right in the thick of a situation, as people face yes or no, life or death, stay or go conflicts. Means puts his characters in a spot of trouble and works his way backwards to show how they arrived there. Not all of the stories work, but all of them are, at some level, tense; sometimes a made-to-order tension (a full three stories involve robberies that go bad) but not always.

Whether it’s an apartment, a hotel room, a dinner table, or under a table, in one case, every story has the feel of a pressurized room.

Exactly like one, in some cases. In "A River in Egypt," a struggling father takes his child to be tested for cystic fibrosis, which means spending time in a heated room. This ultimately gets to both of them -- the child has a fit, the father loses his cool and looks bad in front of the nurse -- and as they return home the dad feels the full weight of how life is closing in on him. He's just lost his job, he's running out of money, he may lose his child, and he doesn't know what to do except take life on a day to day basis, a progression of ebb and flow from which you may, possibly, emerge unscathed.

This is by far the mildest fate of any of Means' people, all stuck in their private heat chambers. One of them, a merchant living in the early 20th Century, actually burns to death: a case history of spontaneous human combustion, where the story is pieced together by way of theories as to just what physical or emotional forces could make a man catch fire.

Most of the people here live on the edge. They are people on the outside of the law, mostly: meth addicts, both modern and Depression-era hoboes and thieves, and psychopaths, as well as the usual sad men and women in or just out of bad marriages.

The first story, “The Knocking,” sets the claustrophobic tone: a divorced man, living alone, is tormented by the incessant noise from the apartment above: sweeping, walking, vacuuming, hammering that goes on a lot longer than necessary – as if the guy upstairs, whoever he is, is on a mission to drive him crazy. It makes him think of the home he built and lost, where he did his own share of repairing, and the noise may be some form of communication from someone who is just as lonely as he is -- or the sounds may be in his own head. Maybe what he's really hearing is the gradually maddening sound of his own crack-up.

In the title story, Shank, a former preacher turned pimp, considers poisoning the Cleveland water supply, hitting it at just the right spot where the water goes into the system. The idea appeals to him because poison is what he has become: a smooth and amorphous virus, drifting from place to place, contaminating and destroying everyone he touches.

A common theme throughout is the way people use stories to get by, either in the lies they tell others, or the illusions and justifications they tell themselves. In "The Spot," Shank, while waiting for a hooker to take care of business with a sweaty john, imagines the ways a young woman can take part in her own degradation: by focusing on the need for her own survival, or by thinking of her self as merely a sexual object, or an organism:

Assume a protoplasmic mobility; the creep of the protozoan, one-celled hydra, primal and original and eager to consume itself for lunch.

Hoboes regale themselves with tales of murder ("The Blade") or narrow escapes ("The Junction"). In “Oklahoma,” a low-life crank addict named Lester, who dreams of being a movie director, lures a young woman named Genevieve into his plan for a robbery. Lester plots the robbery like a movie, framing everything with his hands. But where Lester is making one movie, Genevieve dreams of starring in another -- one with a happier ending than the one she'll likely get.

Although these stories are all set in the Midwest, they have rather a lot in common with Flannery O'Connor's "Christ-haunted" South, full of believers, religious exiles and cracked mystics. Shank himself is a dead ringer for both the smooth con man from "Good Country People" and the murderous Misfit from "A Good Man is Hard to Find."

While these people tend to be creatures of confinement, they are no safer outside than in, as the great and often polluted outdoors seems to be closing in. Leaving the hospital, the father in “A River in Egypt” passes over a bridge; crying “for himself as much as for his son, and for the world that was unfolding to his left, an open vista, the gaping mouth of the river…” Nature itself becomes a constantly devouring presence, whether in the form of a gulch that serves as the scene for a crucifixion, an open grave whose diggers appear to have killed their father, or Niagara Falls.

The stories also have a lot to do with the role of chance, where best-laid plans are suddenly subject to the whims of fate. "One wrong move and God enters the world at a weird angle," says Shank, who is actually talking about himself. In "The Botch," a Depression-era bank robbery goes bad when a gunman is distracted by a woman walking down the street.

There are some lapses here and there; a few stories promise more than they deliver, and in at least one Means samples so freely from William Faulkner and O'Connor herself that I wonder if he wasn't just testing to see if anyone was paying attention. Also, I hope he leavens his fatalism a little in the books to come, mix it up a little, not be so unrelievedly grim. It will keep his books from getting lost in the modern short story shuffle, which is already over-populated with middle-class losers whose fate you can spot a mile away.

Means' talent is to create very concentrated doses of drama, delivered with a poet's measured, precise sensibility. He doesn't just cut to the chase, he slows it down, scrutinizes it, traces the contours of what it means to be lonely, palpates the shapelessness of adultery. This is fiction where a great deal is happening at once: the present, the sequence of events that led up to it, the likely aftermath. To borrow the description of one of his many troubled characters, Means can “shave it down to a single moment, freeze-frame it to the precise second just before all hell breaks loose.”

He creates prosaic, tightly wound slo-mo tragedies, just waiting to happen.

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