Means’ fifth collection cements his reputation as one of the finest, and most idiosyncratic, practitioners of short fiction in contemporary literature.
The 14 stories here revolve around themes of dislocation, in both the personal and the collective realms. Means begins with a declaration: “I’ve been writing stories for thirty years now,” he observes, “many published, others not published but trashed, put to bed, dead in the water….There’s simply no way to distill or describe what’s in the stories, except to say I attempt, to say the least, to respect whatever each story seems to want.” The conditionality is revealing; in many ways, it marks the ethos of the book. Stories, Means is saying, don’t happen to us so much as they grow out of us, which makes them connective in the deepest sense. And yet, as is also true of the work in his previous collections, connection is fleeting, illusory, incomplete. In “The Chair,” a father tries to discipline his young son even as he understands the gesture to be futile in a larger sense. Every moment, in other words, contains the seeds of its dissolution. “As I lifted him and felt his weight,” the narrator reflects, “the purity of the moment vanished and I would smell the stale, tart odor under his collar while he smelled, I suppose, the smoke and coffee on my breath and something else that later, at some point, perhaps even in memory, he would recognize as the first hints of decay.” The title story, on the other hand, looks at things from the other end of the telescope: an older man’s instructions for his funeral, written (as it must be) while he is still among the living; “Everything, right now, is safe and cozy,” the story concludes. Think about the implications of that sentence: a man sitting in the drowsy security of his own existence, writing lines to be read by someone else after he is gone.
In this magnificent book, we find the stories of every one of us: absent and present, dislocated and connected, at the mercy of our history, our narratives.