The Spot, By David Means

A nihilistic study of life on the edge
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The Independent Culture

It's not always easy to step outside your literary comfort zone but American short-story writer David Means succeeds in introducing us to a landscape we might not otherwise visit: a place seething with nihilistic misery and biblical rage. Means's stories are largely set in the blighted heartlands of the Midwest. Inhabiting these unlovely outposts are men and women on the edge – drifters, petty felons and runaways preordained to "fiery deaths", or to be "found frozen in a ditch outside of town". In one story, a farmer is murdered by a sex-worker; in another, a boy is crucified by his classmates.

Short-fiction collections are often arranged around a common theme. Means pushes the idea to its limits. Each entry features, quite literally, the "spot" of the title – a centrifugal point to which the matter of each story is ineluctably drawn. The "spot" can range from a "pucker" on the surface of a lake to the space between broken skin and a dressing, or the turning-point between lust and love. What these "spots" all share is an end-of-the-line inevitability.

Appreciating Means's work involves learning to identify different shades of grey. His characters aren't often allowed the luxury of a personality, so when they are given a partner or a domestic life, we sit up and listen. In "A River in Egypt", a father waits in hospital to learn if his son has tested positive for cystic fibrosis. Enraged by the child's "ducklike" squalls, he seals the boy's mouth shut with his hand. Driving home, he starts to cry, "the way a man must cry when he is faced with the future, any future".

As in his previous collection, The Secret Goldfish, Means shows a taste not only for offbeat story arcs but for experimental prose. "The Knocking" unfurls in unfeasibly long sentences but this stylistic tic neatly captures the stream of complaint issuing from a newly separated husband maddened by sounds of tapping coming from the apartment above.

Yet the most conventional entry also proves the most memorable. "Reading Chekhov" relates the course of a languid affair between a 34-year-old seminarian and a married woman working for a church charity in Upper Manhattan. Oblivious to the city's roar, the couple's trysts take on the stillness of an urban elegy. As ever in Means's fictional universe, these characters have long moved on from despair and turned to embrace the void.