A virtuosic short-story collection by the prize-winning author.
The stories by Means (The Secret Goldfish, 2004, etc.) defy categorization. There are 15 of them in this slim volume, a couple as short as a (long) paragraph, yet they resist the tag of “minimalism.” Instead, they are dense with detail, character and theme, and they connect in some surprising ways that aren’t immediately apparent. One about the power of water leads to another that culminates in a mysterious drowning. Different characters with seminary training come to terms with what the stunning title story calls “goatlike carnality.” Two successive stories have crucifixion as a central image. Others concern crimes or scams, narratives infused with a hard-boiled morality, yet “Reading Chekhov” has a formal elegance in its illumination of adultery. The landscape is largely unromanticized Midwestern, stretching from Canada to Oklahoma (“the crank state”), one of the two states that provides the title of a story. The other is “Nebraska,” about a couple on the lam who can’t help but evoke the Starkweather association of Bruce Springsteen’s album Nebraska, but who are attempting to “capture the spirit of Bonnie and Clyde—not the actual historical characters, who seemed messy and dirty, not to mention dead, but the ones portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.” Many of the pieces are about storytellers—hoboes attempting to cadge a meal, a prostitute and her pimp. The stories within the stories, like the fiction of Means through which they are framed, often have an archetypal quality transcending the characters (many unnamed), as if something immutable in the human condition keeps repeating itself: “The story would end and then it would just keep going, the way this one does.”
Though the author teaches at Vassar, these stories have a lot more punch and life than academic, creative-writing exercises.