LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE
At the bitter end of the 1960s, after surviving multiple assassination attempts, President John F. Kennedy is entering his third term in office. The Vietnam War rages on, and the president has created a vast federal agency, the Psych Corps, dedicated to maintaining the nation’s mental hygiene by any means necessary. Soldiers returning from the war have their battlefield traumas “enfolded”wiped from their memories through drugs and therapywhile veterans too damaged to be enfolded roam at will in Michigan, evading the government and reenacting atrocities on civilians.
This destabilized version of American history is the vision of twenty-two-year old Eugene Allen, who has returned from Vietnam to write the book-within-a-book at the center of Hystopia. In conversation with some of the greatest war narratives, from Homer’s Iliad to the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” David Means channels the voice of Allen, the young veteran out to write a novel that can bring honor to those he fought with in Vietnam while also capturing the tragic history of his own family.
The critic James Wood has written that Means’s language “offers an exquisitely precise and sensuous register of an often crazy American reality.” In Hystopia, his highly anticipated first novel, David Means brings his full talent to bear on the crazy reality of trauma, both national and personal. Outlandish and tender, funny and violent, timely and historical, Hystopia invites us to consider whether our traumas can ever be truly overcome. The answers it offers are wildly inventive, deeply rooted in its characters, and wrung from the author’s own heart.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)|
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By David Means
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2016 David Means
All rights reserved.
BIG AND GRAND RAPIDS
April's the cruelest month, they say, but I wouldn't go that far. At least not yet. I'm going to do my best to make it the cruelest, she heard him say, and then she slipped into darkness and woke, hours later, to the murmur of the engine, the power thrumming under the hood, the hood ornament far out, pointing the way. He had gone in and taken her out of the post- treatment Grid, slipping in, using his words and drugs. His hand was on her leg. Fingers spread. Above everything his talk, his voice ragged and deep, and then as she came up and out of it, his voice and radio static were all she had.
Something was close behind, a spiral of police sirens, the hospital's clean simplicity, the sedation of the treatment, pre and post, that stayed with her when it was over, and she had to command herself to open her eyes and to look out the windows at the devouring slip of the road into itself ...
Groggy, she found her mouth and made it speak, and she was telling him, Find the Ann Arbor channel, the one from the university, Stooges all the time.
Stooges all the time, he muttered.
Then he began coughing and clearing his throat until he had something to spit, and he told her his throat was sore from screaming in Grand Rapids.
It had been a confusing couple of hours before they'd split that scene. The houses had been old, once dignified and fine, now slipping into decrepitude, uncomfortable beneath the trees arching over the wide streets. The trees were tired of shading structures of grandeur, optimistically huge Victorians. Slate shingles gone, hauled away by the looters after the riots.
Shaky had been asleep when they entered his bedroom, treading softly. Rake put the gun to his forehead and told him what he had to give them and how he was to do it and with what kind of movement, slowly, and how much shit he was in, deep, deep unbelievable shit, and Shaky did what they ordered him to do, but when he was doing it he stumbled or made a quick move. He was a tall dark man with knobby knees. One of the tallest motherfuckers you're gonna see in the Middle West, Rake said.
Rake shot him point-blank, producing a spongy, wet sound, and an outbound spew of bone and blood hit the wall, making another sound that she heard and reheard and heard again.
That's that, Rake said, kicking the body.
Then they ransacked the house, pulling drawers, spilling underwear, unfurling panties, frilly things that she held for a moment and dropped to the floor.
The feel of silk was still on her fingertips. She could still see the look in his eyes as he stared at the gun. The black barrel in the black pupil.
You're gonna come out of it, the look said. You're gonna survive this. I'm dead but you're going to live. I'm just one more in the wrong place at the wrong time. One more who wakes up into a nightmare. I'm not going to plead with you too hard, no girl, but I'm gonna give you this last little glance to carry with you when you go, the look said before the gun took it away.
In the kitchen he removed a loaf of Wonder from the bread box, a glass bottle of milk with a paper cap, and some cheese, and then they headed off into the morning light.
I'm afraid we didn't leave a single print, he said. We're on the lam. That's part of the deal. We've got to mix it up. Sometimes I leave prints, other times I don't. Got to give the Psych Corps something to think about, got to leave some tracks they can obsessively follow. He talked and talked as they drove the Grand Rapids streets, turning now and then to make sure she was listening or at least awake, poking her with his long fingers, gripping her thigh.
* * *
Do I talk too much? He said.
Do I ramble on, the king of non sequitur? He said.
Do you listen to me? He said.
Do you listen to me going on and on? You most certainly do. He said. Said. Said. He said. He said. He said.
If you're good for anything you're good as a listener, set to let me ramble while you nod into it. That first time back there, when I finally got to you, I tried that classic dosage, a big 400- microgram dose, the king of all tabs. You get a girl tripping on that and you're free to do what you want depending on the structures you've set up for yourself and I'll admit that I have set some up for myself. I've got my codes and credos just like the rest of them. That's all we had over in Indochina. All we had to live with were the rules and regulations.
Them. It's us against them and they know it, and the thing about them is that the only thing they really know, if you get my drift, is that they failed me. They failed me big-time by not taking care of me when I returned from the war. They took me down to Texas and put me into one of their reenactments and pumped me full of Tripizoid, and then all they did was double it down, increase what they were trying to decrease. If they knew how bad I was feeling, they'd never sleep at night. They'd lock the doors and nail the windows. They'd put me in their prayers and ask for protection specifically against me. They'd walk faster and glance back more often. If they had even the slightest idea that I was wandering their streets they'd unlock their gun cabinets and get their rifles cleaned and make sure the ammo was dry. Some of them have a vague premonition, an ill-formed vision comprised of Vetdock escapees, Black Flag wannabes, trigger-happy acid freaks, and Year of Hate troublemakers. Guys with bad scars, he said. Then he ran his fingers across the scar that ran from his scalp — the part where the hair wouldn't grow — down his neck to where it disappeared under his collar. He touched it, pulled his shirt open, and stared down as if seeing for the first time the way the scar tissue radiated across his chest in weird formations that had once been his nipples, and into his belly button, where the splash had pooled. (That fiery goop spread over me while I watched — and yeah, I did watch it because I was hit such a blast of dopamine that I flew out of myself and stood there on the battlefield resisting the temptation to pound my chest like Tarzan.)
In Grand Rapids, before going into the house, he had pulled over to the curb, letting the car murmur and hum, the long hood shuddering, waxed, a glistening tongue touching the trees in reflection.
You want to know what my credo is? he said. And without waiting for her to answer he continued:
My credo's: never kill for a good reason. If you're going to be a failed enfold, then do it wholeheartedly and with all the gusto you can muster. When you kill, do it quickly so that you pluck the proper method from the situation itself. But never ever, ever be efficient. I mean don't go for the easy kill. At the same time don't stretch it out too much. If there's a scream I want it to be the brutal, loud, quick kind that it goes in one ear and out the other. You can blame that on Nam or you can blame it on the way my mind works. The one thing I hated over there was hearing a fellow grunt crying, stuck out in the fire zone while we gave the Marine credo a workout (never leave the dead buddy behind and all that). He looked at her and examined her eyes and then reached up to touch her face. For a second there was a softening in his features. He had a lean, sharp chin and a gaunt jawbone that led up to an unusual fat brow. Then he gave her a swat on the top of the head and said, Shit, man. We've got to go in, take care of this Shaky character, and leave a calling card for the police, who will give it to the authorities, and then eventually it'll go up the chain to some poor Psych Corps agent. Their job is to find some semblance of order in all this madness, and mine, as I see it, is to give them something to think about ...
You're oblivious to the facts, Meg, he said. His fingers moved along her thigh. She stayed silent and looked out at the streets passing, Grand Rapids in the early morning light, nothing but television aerials, the stars, dew on roofs, lights on in a few windows as folks got up to face a day of work. She tried not to listen, let him keep going, as they moved through the cloverleaf.
Let me explain. When I heard your name a lightbulb went off and the word bingo came to mind. Bingo, I said. I've got to get her out of there and take her on the road. She's the one for me. She has a story that somehow ties to mine.
Anyway, he said, pulling the car to the curb and cutting the engine. I have a picture in my head of the man who caused your trauma from everything you've told me.
I haven't told you anything.
You've told me plenty. In so many words.
So tell me what you know, she said.
I know he died in your typical big-time snafu, all sparkle and glimmer and flash.
You're sure about that.
I'm certain of it.
Then how come I don't think so. How come I can't even speculate.
I'm not the one to ask, he said. Then he got out, opened the rear door, and began loading his weapons in the backseat, snapping them open and shut, filling the car with the smell of oil while she gazed out at the house and examined the beach towels someone had carefully hung over the railing, lining them up neatly: one with the Detroit Tigers emblem: the roaring tiger and the baseball bat. Another had a map of the state of Michigan adorned with symbols: cherries and automobiles and rolls of papers. Next to it was a towel with a peace symbol. She read them from right to left and then from left to right and thought: the Tigers were playing the night of the first Detroit riot, and then the state burned, and then the peace movement — then the peace movement fell apart. A fourth towel was missing, she thought. The statement wasn't complete. There has to be a fourth towel in the house somewhere, still wet and smelling of lake water and suntan lotion, and on that towel there has to be some symbol of hell.
Rake's face appeared in her window. Get out of the car, he said, and she did.
She could remember the nurse's big, lovely brown hands and the way he had soothed and assured, but she couldn't remember his name or his face. She could remember the med center and the start-off point, a room with long countertops and forms to fill out and secretaries with slightly bemused expressions, tired from processing in-patients who came in a great never-ending cycle, and then the rest — the Tripizoid injections, the hippy encampment with a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome and campfires — became a blur.
Let me quote myself, Rake was saying in the car. This was later, moving along a road through the darkness, the engine rumbling under her feet, in her legs.
You're driving on some forsaken road like this one, and then some bloke, yeah, that's the word, some bloke appears with his thumb out, and he wonders if you're going to pick him up or not, and he has that desperation in his eyes because he's hoping for some blind luck, some kind of happenstance out of the blue, and you slow down to get a look at him, and fucking bingo, he's some long-lost comrade-in-arms, a guy you knew back in the fray. So you stop and wave him over to get a better look and see that, yeah, he's a buddy you were sure was KIAed. You were sure of it but there he is, looking loopy, his eyes weary and lost, and he leans forward a little bit and says, Hey, can I get a lift? And you say, Where you heading? And he says, Anywhere. And you tell him to get in, wanting to probe a bit, thinking maybe he's not the guy. And he gets in and sits beside you and you drive a few miles without saying much, just idle chitchat, and then you say, Hey, man, you ever see action in Nam? And he says, Yeah, as a matter of fact, I did, and you say, Hey, me too, and he gives you that kind of reaction you've heard a million times, flat and noncommittal, full of avoidance — because you get either that or the other thing, the full-on meeting-of-two-souls-in-the-desert vibe, as if to say, and this is usually in just a word or two, How could it be possible that two souls bump into each other? Two souls who were over there and are now over here? As if it were some fantastic impossibility, for Christ's sake, when in truth it's as likely as anything else in this state. And because he's noncommittal you wait it out, saying, Fuck, man, and you wait, maybe putting the radio on, figuring the music might lure more out of him but not caring too much because to want his history isn't healthy.
Outside the city there was nothing much along the roadside except dead fields with purple skunk cabbage, old billboards advertising truck stops, restaurants long shut down, houses in shambles. In the center of one field a man stood, staring mutely as they passed, resting his weight against an implement. The Indiana border exerted its own unique pull down and down into the great heart of the country, past demarcation signs; past the dullard state of Ohio. They'd get to the border and head west toward Chicago and feel her pull but not venture too far because that would go against what some vets liked to call the Covenant of the Mitten. You got to keep it in the Mitten, you've got to rage against one thing or you'll never get it done, and it does no good to go wildly out into an entire continent, Rake explained. Fucking state's enough to take care of. There's enough drugs in the state to keep a man busy for a lifetime, not to mention Detroit, not to mention the Grid itself, not to mention the riot zones.
He located — in the haze of static — the Ann Arbor station playing the Stooges, Iggy's voice writhing in little hoots, angry, tinny. It was easy to imagine his shiny torso twisting around and his ribs sticking out as he crucified himself on his own tune. He's the one I turn to when I need a hit of salvation, Rake said. I go to Iggy and begin to worship. I'd kill him if I got close enough. And he'd thank me for it, he added. Then he went on talking while she listened with her head back and her eyes closed and just a sliver of white noise coming through the window crack and another bit of air coming up from a hole in the floorboard. The air smelled sweet through the smoke of his cigarettes and hints of mint weed, spring ...
Oncoming in the distance was a big car, a Lincoln or Olds, with smoke pouring out around the hood.
Fear manifesting itself. The air tarnished with it. Her skin with hives. Everything reduced to her forearms, her skin with hives. Behind them far off a siren unspooling. The look Shaky had given — the moon whites of his eyes, the sadness touching sadness.
I believe that man's drinking under the influence of driving, Rake was saying, pulling the car over to the shoulder. Through the windshield she watched as he stepped out of the car, entrapped in silence, the sun on his neck, the fields behind him empty, the road still and quiet as he pointed, aimed, following the car in the opposite lane, following, following until the smoke of the shot hovered and he squinted, gazed, shot again, catching the Olds in a tire, running across the median (all quickly) and ordering the driver out, a tall elderly man in a black suit coat and tie with his arms up high. The hat on his head was black, with a narrow brim. (For a second she thought: That's my grandfather.) There was something about the break of his trouser around his shoes and the way his shirt was tucked in tight that spoke of a gentleman, a man who had made his mark in the world and was now succumbing to loss. She slid down and waited for one more shot, or two, the sharp hole the sound would inevitably produce, startling the starlings and sparrows that had settled again in the fields (and it did) into a gust of wing flap she'd catch out of the corner of her eye when she'd look up and out the window and see the man sprawled on the road, making electric jerks that lifted his heels up and down while a stub of blood shot from his chest.
He was breathing hard when he got back to the car.
The road blazed in the setting sunlight. A trooper car passed, going the other way, dome light flashing, and then he spoke, saying, I'm going over the border to Indiana for a few miles and then up again even though it's not my style to go out of state even to make the odds better against being caught. You're probably wondering why I shot that one back there, and I'm inclined to tell you, although I have doubts that you'll understand what I'm going to say, he said, adjusting the radio dial, holding on to the wheel with his knees while lighting a cigarette, taking a deep draw and then another deeper one and glancing at her. I shot that guy because he reminded me of my uncle Lester, and my uncle Lester used to remind me of my father, and my father used to remind me of my uncle Lester, and Lester was a crazy son of a bitch who did things to kids that he should've done to adults because he had what my mother liked to call wandering hands, hands that were cut loose from his mind. My mother said Lester couldn't help what he did but she still sent me over to his sign shop to learn the trade, in Detroit. He had a good little operation going as a vendor and he made shingles for dealerships and for the floors — warning signs and the like, things that said Careful Workers Make Better Cars, that kind of shit, and I got to his shop and began to learn to make stencils, cutting them out — I was handy with my own hands, you see — and I was a natural. That's what the old geezer said. He said, You're a natural at this, boy, holding my hand with his hand while he guided the brush, using that as pretext to handle and fondle my fingers, I see now, but I didn't at the time because I was a kid and pure and clean and unseeing of those things, as most kids are, and that went on until a few weeks later he was trying to get his hands on other parts of me and finally, well, to cut this short and give you the whole story, I gave him a blast of paint in the face from a spray gun, and then I cut his throat and then I joined up, I enlisted, and the rest, as they say, is history, but that's what made me kill that man out there, the fact that there was a likeness in the man to the man named Lester, although I have to say it wasn't as good as killing uncle Lester himself, but I can't do that again, can I, so all I can do is keep trying to find a way to get as close to doing it again as I can, he said madly, going on for at least twenty minutes, circling around on the story again to tweeze out more details; the little shacklike building that was the shop, the smell of paint and paper and turpentine.
Excerpted from Hystopia by David Means. Copyright © 2016 David Means. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Big and Grand Rapids,
Psych Corps Building, Flint,
Down & Up,
Psych Corps Building, Flint,
Out of the Woods,
The Blue Pills,
The Blue Pill Kicks,
Surety Is a Thing of the Past,
The Fury Unites,
Also by David Means,
A Note About the Author,