The Spotby David Means
"Achingly intelligent...With his jump-cut shifts, startling connections and breathtaking disconnections, the author stands among our most gifted younger writers. Distinctively, though, he anneals his cutting-edge irony into a compassionate anger that goes beyond the literary times. In a word he might disdain to use, it is timeless."---Richard Eder, The New York… See more details below
"Achingly intelligent...With his jump-cut shifts, startling connections and breathtaking disconnections, the author stands among our most gifted younger writers. Distinctively, though, he anneals his cutting-edge irony into a compassionate anger that goes beyond the literary times. In a word he might disdain to use, it is timeless."---Richard Eder, The New York Times" "His highly original stories are coats that have been reversed to show their linings...Means's language offers an exquisitely precise and sensuous register of an often crazy American reality. Sentences gleaming with lustre are sewn throughout the stories. One will go a long way with a writer possessed of such skills."---James Wood, London Review of Books" "More than impressive...Means can produce work that holds up even in comparison with his most gifted Midwestern ancestors, such as Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway."---Alan Cheuse. Chicago Tribune" "It is Means's signature talent to view the lives of his characters, and life itself, from somewhere just beyond, in a position of maximum understanding and honorable detachment: a semi-divine vantage point for the examination of hopelessly human affairs."---Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex and the Virgin Suicides" "The Spot is an old blacksmith shed in which three men tweeze apart the intricacies of a botched bank robbery." "The Spot is a park on the Hudson River where two lovers sense their affair is about to come to an end." "The Spot is at the bottom of Niagara Falls, where the body of a young girl is tossed in the currents of her own tragic story." "The Spot is in the ear of a Manhattan madman plagued by a noisy upstairs neighbor." "The Spot is a suburban hospital room in which a young father confronts his son's potentially devastating diagnosis." "The Spot is a dusty encampment in Nebraska where a gang of inept radicals revolution." The Spot draws thirteen new stories together into a masterful collection that shows David Means at his finest: at once comically detached and wrenchingly affecting, expansive and concise, wildly inventive and firmly rooted in tradition. Means's work has earned him comparisons to Flannery O'Connor (London Review of Books), Alice Munro, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac (Newsday), Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson (Chicago Tribune/NPR), Denis Johnson (Entertainment Weekly), Poe, Chekhov, and Carver (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), but the spot he has staked out in the American literary landscape is fully and originally his own.
“Means is more than a conventionally accomplished realistic story writer. As I've written before in these pages, his fiction sometimes skitters up to the borderline of legend . . . he can produce work that holds up even in comparison with his most gifted ancestors like Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway, employing some of the most sharp-edged and beautifully spare language of any writer of his generation. The stories in ‘The Spot' show him working at the top of his powers . . . With this new collection readers with a taste for high art in the short story will want to place him up there with writers such as Evan Connell, James Salter, and, from a slightly younger generation, Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford.” Alan Cheuse, The Chicago Tribune
“David Means revives the American short story in this quietly compelling collection about adulterous Manhattanites, violent train-yard drifters, pensive madmen, and concerned fathers. It's as if the works of Poe and Kerouac had been rewritten by Cheever.” Details
“Each story is a reminder of why people break, and an uncomfortable revelation that we are all closer to breaking than we think.” Esquire
“His book is dark, deep and dangerous. Here, the author's technical authority continues to astonish. He'll switch point of view midstory or examine the act of storytelling while telling a tale that you actually want to read. His most typical pieces, at once shadowy and insanely focused, feature bleak Midwestern violence: the crucifixion of a high-school boy, or the murder of a farmer by a hooker. Others bend time until it becomes as complex as the characters themselves . . . Virtuosic.” Leigh Newman, TimeOut New York
“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. 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.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“In three previous collections, Means proved himself a master of the short form, earning comparisons to O'Connor and Carver for his tight, energetic sentences. The 13 luminous stories in his fourth collection are just as strong. Here Means articulates the impulsiveness of angst-driven loners, including the homeless who've lost their faith in others and drifters whose only means of survival is their tale, whether true or otherwise. In the title story, a pimp, schooled in the Bible and disguised as a Northern Michigan farmer, tells a client about a girl whose drowning was his fault, and whose father followed her body to Niagara Falls. A group of hoboes swap stories involving knives until one man's silence betrays his refusal to reveal the tale of revenge that brought him to this place. A man assuming the worst for his ailing son wraps up his son's old toys and arranges an early Christmas. Darkly comic and rich in language and drama, Means' cerebral tales are astute, amusing, and companionable.” Jonathan Fullmer, Booklist
“Every reader has a comfort zone. When an author breaks that boundary, the reader is forced to come to terms with the limits of their own adventurous nature. If it sounds as though David Means's newest collection of short stories, The Spot, forced me into my own literary panic room--if it sounds as though I'm fighting for some sense of ownership over these stories--well, it did, and I am. Means was put on earth to frustrate creative writing teachers and John Gardner evangelists: His characters don't change. A lot of his action happens in flashback. His violence borders on the grotesque. He can take or leave paragraphs as structural units of composition. And he rarely, if ever, allows for immersion into fiction's ‘vivid and continuous dream.' Yet to read The Spot is to understand that these rules were made to be broken--or, in Means's case, to be pistol whipped, dragged into a quarry, shot twice in the head, and set on fire.” The Rumpus
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By Means, David
Faber & FaberCopyright © 2010 Means, David
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Upstairs he stops for a moment, just to let the tension build, and then he begins again, softer at first, going east to west and then east again, heading toward the Fifth Avenue side of the building, pausing to get his bearings, to look out at the view, I imagine, before heading west, pausing overhead to taunt me before going back into motion for a few minutes, setting the pace with a pendulous movement, following the delineation of the apartment wallsâ€”his the same as mine, his exactly the sameâ€”and then there is another pause, and I lean back and study the ceiling and hear, far off, the sound of knocking in his kitchen, and then eventuallyâ€”maybe five minutes, maybe moreâ€”he comes back and begins persistent and steady, without the usual aggression, as if he has forgotten me, set me aside, put away his desire for vengeance, offering a reprieve from the nature of his knocking. Maybe a five-minute reprieve, more or less, because it is impossible to guess how long these silent moments might be when they open up overhead, knowing, as I wait, that the knocking will begin again; if not in the form of his tapping heel, then some other kind of knock: perhaps the sound of the hammer he uses to pound the nails (Heâ€™s a big nail pounder. Heâ€™ll hang pictures at all hours), or the rubbery thud of his printer at work (Heâ€™s a big printer, scrolling out documents in the wee hours of the morning, at dusk and at dawn), or the thump of his mattress hitting the slats, accompanied by the wheeze of springs (the wheeze not officially a knocking, most certainly, acting as a kind of arabesque, a grace note to the mattress knocks that arrive after some easeful swaying in his bed). Other sounds, too, that might be included in the knocking family accumulate in my mind this afternoon, an entire history of loud bangs stretching back to the day I moved in two years agoâ€”a cornucopia of various noises that included pot/pan banging, dull plaster thud, bubbling water dribble, the claw scratch titter that continued for a week, the incessant moaning, and the grief-filled swooning sound that arose intermittently and that at first had sounded human but then, over the course of a few days, had taken on a mechanistic, reproduced quality that made me certain it was a recording, a tape loop of some sort. He was that kind of knocker. He was willing to go beyond the call of duty to find a way to make a new noise and to find a way to repeat it endlessly. He was the kind of knocker who would learn a fresh technique, a way of landing his heel on the floor, of lifting his toes and letting them rattle a board, and work with a calisthenic efficiencyâ€”all bones and sinewâ€”to transmit the sound via the uncarpeted prewar floorboards, woody, resonant oak solid enough to withstand the harder strikes. Above all, he not only took knocking seriously but went beyond that to a realm of pure belief in the idea that by being persistent over the long term and knocking only for the sake of knockingâ€”in other words, blanking me at least temporarily out of his consciousness, and in doing so forgetting the impulse (our brief meeting last year) for starting in the first placeâ€”he could take a leap of faith and increase his level of concentrationâ€”pure raptureâ€”and, in turn, his ability to sustain the knocking over the long run. By casting off that original impetus (our brief hall meeting, brushing by each other on that fall afternoon so long ago), he could hit the floor with his heels while I, below, heard him and knew he was doing so driven by a pure faith that went beyond retribution. (Iâ€™d tried, long ago, to return the knocks, pounding the ceiling with the broom handle, getting up on a stepladder to follow the footfalls, only to find that as the one below, I was unable to fend off the knocking; because to knock up is not the same as knocking down, and any sound that resides at the feet most certainly isnâ€™t the same thing as a sound coming down upon the head.) Theoretically, there is still debate about the nature of the knock in relation to the listener, of course, and one can easily postulate that a knock not heard is not a knock but rather a soundâ€”pure and simple, and that to qualify as an official knock the sound must not only be heard, but it must also arrive in the ears with an annoying quality. Most certainly, there are gentle knocks, sweet knocks, but those usually fall into the category of soft rappings: the late-night arrival, the lover-to-lover, message-through-the-wall (often adulterous) tap; the old-school, salesman-at-the-door, Fuller Brush five-knuckle rapâ€”a deep anachronism now, replaced long ago by the doorbell, of course, which, in turn, has been replaced by the phone ring. To the receiver of the knock, all theories, no matter how plausible and how sensible, are destroyed by the sound itself. Imaginative capacities gather around the knock. A hammer against a nail, sharp and persistent, goes on a beat too long, pounding and pounding over the course of an entire evening, with metronomic precision. The rounded edge of a sapâ€”lead in leatherâ€”being slapped overhead against the floor-boards, making a blunt rubbery tap with a leathery overtone. A piercingly sharp metallic tap, not too loud and not too soft, coming out from under the casual noise of a summer after-noonâ€”the roar of traffic on Fifth combined with high heel taps, taxi horns, and the murmur of voicesâ€”with a hauntingly pristine quality, the sharp end of a walking stick with a tin tip. A swishing sound stretching from one side of the head to the other arriving one afternoonâ€”again, many of these knockings come late in the day when he knows, because he does know, that Iâ€™m in my deepest state of reverie, trying to ponderâ€”what else can one do!â€”the nature of my sadness in relation to my past actions, throwing out, silently, wordlessly, my theorems: Love is a blank senseless vibration that, when picked up by another soul, begins to form something that feels eternal (like our marriage) and then tapers and thins and becomes wispy, barely audible (the final days in the house along the Hudson), and then, finally, nothing but air unable to move anything (the deep persistent silence of loss. Mary gone. Kids gone). One after-noonâ€”as I was remembering how it felt to slide my hand along Maryâ€™s hips, or the way her skin smoothed out around her belly and grew bone hard and then softer and flat until I got to the soft wetnessâ€”the sweeping sound began; not a knocking, but simply the sound of a man upstairs cleaning his apartment in the middle of a hot New York afternoon . . . a clean, easy sound at first. Nothing to itâ€”no knockingâ€”until my attention was drawn away from reverie (Mary) and I detected within the sound a hardness, a pressing nature, and I became awareâ€”over the course of what seemed to be an hourâ€”that the sound remained just over my head, with a steadiness that went beyond the nature of the task. There was keen deliberateness. He was going to sweep his way through the floor, the joists and plaster. At some point the sweet, even anachronistic, broom swish had shifted to knock mode, not so much the actual soundâ€”because that was simply vibrations in the airâ€”but rather the inherent pacing and gestural qualities in the way the sound produced itself: the intent behind the gesture had at some point gone from the sweeping itself to the sound that the act made, so that it was clear to me below that what had started out as a normal cleaning routine had at some point, perhaps in response to my moaning and occasional shouts up at the ceiling between sweeps, shifted over to knocking. In other words, at some point his desire to sweep morphed into a desire to knock. Another example: One relatively quiet afternoonâ€”just the dull murmur of televisions going on all sides, the occasional voice in the air shaftâ€”my friend upstairs decided to hang a picture of some kind, or to pound a nail for some other reason (is there another reason?), and he began with the occasional tap, teasingly working the point into the plaster. It was a tidy sound with something pleasant in it. The hammer head against the nail. Force being transferred to the tapered point, easing into the plaster, finding the gap where the plaster opens into void. I listened with pleasure. Leaning back in my chair, I thought: Go on, old boy! Pound away! Get that nail in there! Donâ€™t pause too long or youâ€™ll lose your sense of the task! Get to work! Find some semblance of rhythm in the strikes. Hold the hammer low and let it swing lightly to avoid pressure on the inside of the wrist! Get into that pure state if you can and let the head fall in accordance with the demands of the nail itself! If need be, go back into those long afternoons in the house up in Westchester, when you were neatly tied up in your matrimonial vows and waiting to see what the next project might bring in the way of quietude: some afternoon, cutting into a board, or feeling your way around a broken water valve in a dark recess. Let the pounding become one with your own sense of needing to get something done, physically, to see some effort transposed from thumb to forefinger, so to speak, smoothing down freshly poured concrete with a trowel, feeling the gelatinous shift of substance. Whatever it is, I thought, or maybe even shouted, because I was prone to instructing him when necessary and mightâ€™ve shouted up at the ceiling; whatever it is youâ€™re doing, get it done swiftly and with smooth strokes and avoid catching yourself up in the task itself, I thought or said. Go to it, old boy! Iâ€™m sure I said. Get into it! Pound away! The age of the handy task is waning. Weâ€™re in the twilight of the age of knocking, Iâ€™m sure I said. The great tradition is on the way out, Iâ€™m sure I said, I think, because he was going full bore with a terrifying, frenetic effort, pinpointing the sound with a steady, ecstatic perfection. He was the greatest of all knockers. He was a brilliant virtuosic master of the form, landing thuds in what seemed to be an intuitively perfect way. No intent, no human intent of any kind could find such a precise way to make the sound he made. He was at the top of his form. Each knock had my name on it! Each knock spoke directly to me! His was the work of a man on the edge of madness. A man who had lost just about everything, channeling all of his abilities into his knocking. He was seeking the kind of clarity you could get only by bothering another soul, down below you (never up) in his own abode, hunkering down on a hot summer afternoon on the great insular city of the Manhattoes, trying to put the pain of a lost marriage behind him (Mary!) along with fond memories of a time when the desire he felt for his wife was equally matched by her desire for him (presumably); when there had been a great exchange of love between two souls, or at least what seemed to be, and he had gone about his days, puttering, fixing things, knocking about in a much less artistic manner, trying the best he could to keep the house in shape.
Excerpted from The Spot: Stories by David Means.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2010 by David Means.
Published in 2010 by Faber and Faber, Inc..
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Excerpted from The Spot by Means, David Copyright © 2010 by Means, David. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
DAVID MEANS was born and raised in Michigan. His second collection of stories, Assorted Fire Events, earned the Los Angles Times Book Prize for fiction and a National Book Critics Circle nomination. His third book, The Secret Goldfish, received widespread critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Prize. His fourth book, The Spot, was selected as a 2010 Notable Book by The New York Times, and won an O. Henry Prize. His books have been translated into eight languages, and his fiction has appeared The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Esquire, Zoetrope, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous other publications. He lives in Nyack, New York, and teaches at Vassar College.
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This was a challenging read. I almost gave up after the first few stories, but once I got used to Means' style, the stories became beautiful and well worth the challenge.