My 2012 plan is to always have one or two collections on the go, available by the reading chair for a half-hour or one-hour read. I’m not organized enough to have created a physical collections shelf but I do have a mental one: some Russians (Chekhov and Tolstoy), American short story specialists (John Cheever, Tobias Wolff), Canadian greats (Alice Munro, Carol Shields), and that Montreal gang I referenced in a couple of reviews last year (Clark Blaise, Hugh Hood, John Metcalf, for a start). Then there’s a whole separate shelf for favorite novelists who also wrote short stories (Edith Wharton, Henry James, William Maxwell, Larry Watson). And my friends at Calgary WordFest keep an eye out for me on debut collections from Canadian writers — a couple of which always seem to feature in Prize longlists come fall.
I have read examples from all of those authors (and the list above does not require buying a single book as all are on hand) — disciplined approach or not, it is pretty obvious that this project needs to extend well beyond 2012 even if I don’t add to the existing store of collections.
And that store will inevitably expand along the way, so it is fitting that the first review in the project involves a well-known American short story author whom I have never read. David Means’ third collection (of four), The Secret Goldfish (2004), came into my library a few months ago as a present in a book exchange with Lee Monks, a frequent commenter here. Critics have lavished praise on Means — the Wikipedia entry on him shows comparisons to Munro, Cheever, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver (ouch, there are three more to add to the project list already). My first exposure suggests those comparisons are entirely valid.
Means was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan and a number of the 15 stories in the collection are set in northern Michigan. He has obviously spent time in the Rust Belt states, also reflected in this collection. And he currently lives in New York — The Secret Goldfish has stories from the Hudson River Valley, Connecticut and Cape Cod.
So, unlike Munro, Cheever or Carver, there is no “Means” country. Rather, if this collection is a fair indication, there is a distinctive Means’ story style with two central traits. His characters come from society’s underclass (carnies, longshoremen, couples falling apart all feature here) and they are not responding well to their challenging circumstances. And, even more important, the author structures most of his stories in a rapid-fire series of vignettes, most only a page or two long, and the spaces between the vignettes are as important as what is contained in them.
“Petrouchka [with Omissions]” is the story in this volume that illustrates that style best, since unlike many others the “omissions” of this story are included in the text. It opens with the scene-setting current reality:
A pianist was beset with panic because his right hand had frozen up, grown heavy, during a Schubert sonata, missing several notes during the Andante, sending a soft murmur — accompanied by biting coughs from angry throats — through the audience. All was suddenly asunder, his command faltering, the normal alliance between his skill, his talent, and what might be called genius, broken. The audience settled into stunned silence, an aural black hole from which emerged a few more tight coughs. As most everyone knows, his grand celebration, his triumphant return from Moscow, was ruined. And as many of you might have guessed, the sense of panic that began that night would not subside. His fingers — in the parlance of his profession — stayed heavy. Those fingers — I’ll admit — are mine.
That quote is the entire opening section; in the next Petrouchka moves on to a hospital visit with his dying father (“certainly you know him, probably have listened to him play when he was principal French horn with the Philharmonic”). And then we get the first [Omission], the parallel thought that is going on in Petrouchka’s brain or happens later, but which is not really part of the current reality narrative:
Omitted from this section: He disagreed with his father. Of course there in the hospital room he wasn’t about to argue. To linger over one or two composers for an entire career seemed like an exercise bordering on cultist adoration, maybe religion; he was no monk. Later that night his father died. Nothing dramatic. Then days of arrangements — the funeral parlor, the minister, and then the funeral, attended by a few retired members of the Cleveland Philharmonic. When he got back to New York he met up with Antoinette right away, at a place on Madison near her building. When someone tells you something just before he dies, he said, it kind of sticks to you like a residue — is that the word? — and you can’t, at least I can’t, just shrug it off.
Those parallel structures continue throughout the 20-page story in an action-reaction exchange that eventually builds a comprehensive picture. “Petrouchka [with Omissions]” is different from many of the other stories in this collection because it makes the exchanges explicit; in many of the rest, the reader is left to fill them in himself.
I have focused on only one story here because I wanted to be able to include enough quoted material to illustrate Means’ style — his distinctive use of language is as important as his distinctive structure. Here are thumbnail descriptions of just a few other stories that illustrate both those strengths and equally impressed me:
— “Lightning Man” tells the story of Nick Kelley whose distinction, as the title implies, is being struck by lightning — seven times over a number of years and in a number of mid-West locations in the course of the story.
— “Sault Ste. Marie” is my personal favorite of Means’ Northern Michigan stories in this book. Ernie, Marsha and the narrator are a trio of low-life drinkers/drug-users on a minor crime spree in the area around the city of the title (lake freighters, longshoremen and locks all feature in it). Minor turns major when “Ernie shot the guy named Tull in the parking lot”.
— “Dustman Appearances to Date” illustrates another aspect of Means’ style — there are no central characters in this story. Rather, the vignettes in this one chronicle the appearances of dust figures that resemble humans across the United States from Crazy Horse in the West, to Truro, Massachusetts, to Nekoosa, Wisconsin (the author observes in this section of the story: “By the way, Ben Franklin was a big believer in dustmen”). For an author who delights in creating the empty spaces between reality in his stories, it is fitting that he devotes an entire story to ephemeral dustmen figures.
— The title story, “The Secret Goldfish”, features a six-year-old goldfish (“outstandingly old for a fish”, the norm being about one month, as we all know) who has outgrown a series of tanks. The parallel line in this story is that the fish has outlived the marriage of his owner’s parents — that collapse is the surrounding story.
Means’ stories are strange enough that you really do not want to read more than a couple at a time (and hence he was a perfect introduction to my project). The reader needs to take some time after each one to figure out just what pieces of the puzzle the author has provided and which are missing and need to be filled in by the reader himself. It is an approach which distinguishes the author from many of the others named in the opening paragraphs of this review — it also shows why Means has attracted such positive and well-deserved critical attention. Now if I can only get some of those other collections read, sometime in 2014 or 2015 I could get back to more David Means :-) .