The Spot, By David Means

A father loses control in a hospital; a heist goes wrong – all told in sublime, counter-intuitive detail
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David Means is a short-story writer celebrated for his bleak, unsettling tales of peripheral American lives. Here, in his fourth collection, he again depicts characters with great tenderness as they twitch and convulse on spider webs of moral complexity. Interests nascent in Means' earlier work emerge more fully: formal experimentation in particular comes to the fore, with jump cuts and abrupt shifts in scale and register, as well as the chorus-like status of deranged down-and-outs. One of The Spot's many achievements is to weave together apparently mutually exclusive elements, drawing us in, making us care about characters, but also exploring techniques that so often have a distancing effect.

Take "A River in Egypt", which dabbles with defamiliarisation but maintains an empathic connect with a character in difficult straits. A father takes his son to the hospital, and is caught by a nurse clamping his hand over the screaming boy's mouth. The narrative is interrupted by a page-long riff detailing a tiny shift in the nurse's facial expression – what "[it] seemed... she was thinking". This hits the nail on the head in terms of the nature of public trauma, when things seem both excruciatingly slow and too fast to control, but we also remember that the father is a jobless set designer thrown off his last film because, as the director put it, "maybe you see too much" – his vision was "too real, too clear". Means harnesses this trait, and depicts something that seems to need depicting before the story can feasibly continue. Unlike a lot of experimentalism in fiction, it is not done to be flashy or to prompt questions about the constructedness of fiction, but simply because the story requires it.

The zeitgeist seems anathema to Means' imagination, with many of the stories set fifty to a hundred years ago, and there's a concern for sparky, gritty characters of a mythic lustre: most surprisingly, zany, tragicomic lowlifes pop up who are the heirs to the Beat Generation's forgotten muse, Neal Cassady. "The Botch", set in Dillinger/Capone-era Ohio, features pomaded, Tommy gun-toting robbers whose heist teeters into a bloodbath, all related in an odd but fervently analytical voice. Means has a talent for such daring juxtapositions.

In spite of one or two wobbles, by and large The Spot reveals why Means is being mentioned in the same breath as Cheever and Updike. Above all, he has the judiciousness to weigh each story's requirements, and the versatility to meet them in the most unshowy and invigorating ways.