The Spotby David Means
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 floats as if caught in the currents of her own tragic story./p>/p>/p>
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 floats as if caught 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 plot a 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 David Means
Faber and Faber, Inc.Copyright © 2010 David Means
All rights reserved.
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 walls — his the same as mine, his exactly the same — 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 eventually — maybe five minutes, maybe more — 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 (He's a big nail pounder. He'll hang pictures at all hours), or the rubbery thud of his printer at work (He'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 ago — 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 efficiency — all bones and sinew — 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 knocking — 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 place — he could take a leap of faith and increase his level of concentration — pure rapture — 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. (I'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 isn'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 sound — 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 latenight arrival, the lover-to-lover, message-through-the-wall (often adulterous) tap; the old-school, salesman-at-the-door, Fuller Brush five-knuckle rap — 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 sap — lead in leather — being slapped overhead against the floorboards, 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 afternoon — the roar of traffic on Fifth combined with high heel taps, taxi horns, and the murmur of voices — 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 afternoon — again, many of these knockings come late in the day when he knows, because he does know, that I'm in my deepest state of reverie, trying to ponder — what else can one do! — 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 afternoon — as I was remembering how it felt to slide my hand along Mary'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 wetness — 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 it — no knocking — until my attention was drawn away from reverie (Mary) and I detected within the sound a hardness, a pressing nature, and I became aware — over the course of what seemed to be an hour — 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 sound — because that was simply vibrations in the air — 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 afternoon — just the dull murmur of televisions going on all sides, the occasional voice in the air shaft — 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! Don't pause too long or you'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 might've shouted up at the ceiling; whatever it is you'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! I'm sure I said. Get into it! Pound away! The age of the handy task is waning. We're in the twilight of the age of knocking, I'm sure I said. The great tradition is on the way out, I'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.CHAPTER 2
Amid the men around the fire — tramps with other tramps — there was a young kid who reminded Ronnie of himself from way back, the same limberness combined with sorrow, the same combo of despair and liveliness holding out against the odds. A kid copping amid the others as if it didn't matter that a sense had already formed that at some point soon he'd be cast off, thrown from a train car or simply left behind on the road when he was too far gone to move along. He stared the kid down and waited for him to answer somehow.
Ignore that dead weight, the man named Vanboss said, offering a bottle. There were among the men two bottles of Old Crow and one of a nameless cough remedy, emerald green, syrupy and sweet. They were in a scrubby little camp not far from an oil refinery, just outside of Toledo, and near enough to the Maumee to hear the water flowing. A turpentine smell filled the air, along with the pitch of creosote coming from the track ties and something else, an ozone aftermath of a giant electric spark. They had a little taper of a fire going, nothing much, and they were easeful and calm with the past as far behind them as it would go, and for a long time not much was said besides an occasional curse, some forswearing of the past in the form of a grunt, nothing else until eventually — because it had to at some point — a banter began between the man named Vanboss and the man named Stark, the kind of talk that came after a long quiet. The man named Vanboss told a story about a car crash. Two cars, each doing about a hundred on a two-lane outside Tulsa, struck each other head-on, mashing up into a one-foot-by-one-foot block of metal, out of which there crawled an unscratched child. That led to an argument about the likelihood — or the possibility — of such an event, which in turn led to a story about a guy who had been decapitated in a farming accident, his head boxed neatly in a bale of hay, which in turn veered into some easy, casual chatter about arrest records, which in turn led to stories of knife use, of the best way to stab a man if the need came around. (Ease into the handle and let the edge do the work if the knife is sharp, the man named Vanboss said. If dull, stab fucking hard — for the startling shock of it — and then twist even harder to make up for the dullness.) At that point, the junkie kid entered off topic, telling a tale about an old Indian man on a Zuni reservation who claimed his baby daughter had been carried away in the claws of a hawk, which led to a short, tight argument about the possibility of such an event, which somehow led back to knives and a brief silence in which they considered the way blades came in and out of their travels — a blue chrome glint in the darkness of a reefer car. A fat butcher knife — wider than it was long — whirling, blade, handle, blade handle, over the top of a loaded coal hopper. And in this silence, Ronnie held his own blade story close to the vest and resisted the urge to join in, because to tell it properly he'd have to explain how he'd spent a couple of years with an old geezer named Hambone. (But he'd never confess the deep extent of that sharing. He'd hold off on the intimacies. He'd refrain from all that.) He'd have to give the requisite road detail, charting their travails like pins on a map, from Spokane (bad facilities, not enough places to squat) to Lincoln (kind people willing to go out of their way to buy you a drink), giving just enough detail to authenticate the story, so the others would have a chance to chime in, saying, I know that town, that shit-hole, or, I stay clear of that dump, with the bulls running wild in the yards, or, I know a cop in that one, a nice guy who'll cut you a break if you need it. Then he'd have to go into how the old man had gone on a drinking binge in Flagstaff, and how he had waited out the jail stint and helped him out, and then how the old man did the same in kind a few months later, when Ronnie had evened things out with his own binge in Kansas City. The men would nod with an understanding of the delicate nature of a balanced road kinship. Finally he'd get (he speculated) to that one night at the camp in Michigan and what Hambone had said about his mother.
But at that point, in order to give the complete story (he thought), he'd be forced to backtrack. In order to give sense to his blade story he'd have to expose the old man — now gone, now just so much ashes and dust — to the judgment and ridicule of these men around the fire. Then his voice would thicken and he'd say, Here's where the knife fits in, boys. You wake up in the cold night with a blade to your throat. You wake up to a halfcrazed old fuck drawing a knife against your gullet while you struggle out of a dream to a vague understanding of the threat at hand. You wake to hear an old man saying, You believe what I said about my lovely mother or I'll kill you dead right here. At that point, the story would demand more. Without more, it would simply be another blade story in a world of a million. One more old geezer/youth kinship/betrayal tale of the road. Give me your word that you believe me or I'll kill you dead right here, he thought while the men waited, their faces tentative and masklike in the firelight, each one — even the junkie kid — holding firm with the sense that he had something to say. Beyond the weeds, the Maumee slugged casually toward Lake Erie. Another blade-to-the-throat story stood at the ready, the men sensed. They caught a vibe in the static holding pattern the banter had taken, in the way that Ronnie held off on his turn to speak. They were sure he had a blade story! In turn, he sensed their expectation, the desire they had to hear everything, right down to how he had extricated himself from the blade. Because the old geezer named Hambone was now long gone.
Excerpted from The Spot by David Means. Copyright © 2010 David Means. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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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.
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.