A second collection by the author of A Quick Kiss of Redemption (1991) continues the search for redemption in short fictions (some from Harper’s, most from little mags) that borrow their lyric style from the groggiest sort of contemporary long-line poetry. Dabbling in self-consciousness, Means plays with punctuation and ellipses; he often goes streamy when the narrative most demands clarity.
In the typical Means story, perspectives clash or merge in a startlingly odd way. “Railroad Incident, August 1995” shifts from the sad tale of a widower drifting along the railroad tracks in a daze to the story of his persecutors, some local thugs out for kicks. In “The Interruption,” two men of vastly different circumstances—one a solid citizen, the other a vagrant—find their lives changed forever by an odd encounter at a hotel wedding. “Tahorah” relies on sheer coincidence for the narrative convergence: the deaths of two different patients on the same ward, one a curmudgeonly old truck driver, dying from heart failure, the other a young and beloved daughter of an Israeli immigrant. But there’s no cross-class (or cross-cultural) hug-fest here; the ill-assorted characters hurtle into each other, and lots of deaths result. The two-page interlude “What I Hope For” promises no more dying in these stories, but Means quickly breaks his pledge. In fact, he closes with a trio of fictions diminished or curtailed. “The Gesture Hunter” relishes his collection until he realizes he’s been deceived by a movie production crew; the title piece is more a discourse than a story—a disjointed meditation on arson; and the final entry, “The Woodcutter,” involves the suicide of a Vietnam vet given to manically chopping wood.
A few of the longer, more conventional tales flesh out character and eschew the simply bizarre to explore the landscape of the God-worried, the guilt-ridden, the death-haunted. But Means’s artsy gestures undercut his better intentions.