In this collection of thirteen stories, David Means transforms tragedies, some typical, some outrageous (there’s a hidden middle-age affair and a botched small-town bank heist, but also a spontaneous human combustion and a crucifixion of a high-school misfit) into tales of surprising emotional complexity. The stories remind the reader that it’s never tragedies themselves that shape us, but how we respond—how we cover them up and run from them, or how we face them head on—that speaks loudest about us.
In “The Blade,” the travel-weary tramp who hesitates to contribute his knife story to those already slung around the campfire decides to allow his silence to disclose the murder he cannot believe he committed. “A River in Egypt” chronicles a father’s failed attempts at entertaining his toddler son long enough for nurses to collect enough of his sweat to fill a testing device that will indicate whether or not he has cystic fibrosis. At just over two pages long, “All Wondering,” the collection’s shortest story, manages to explain two brothers’ decision to bury their father fifteen-feet deep beneath an East Coast beach. In the title story, “The Spot” is a pucker in the surface of a lake, marking the source of Cleveland’s water supply. “Right there,” says a man named Shank, who has seven other nicknames, to the young woman he’ll murder a few days later. “If you were to dump enough poison on that spot you’d kill the entire city in one sweep.”
Means’ writing is tight, the words carefully chosen and weighed against one another for the sake of wasting not, fulfilling previous comparisons of his work to writers like Raymond Carver, Alice Munro and Sherwood Anderson. His experiments in form, while modest, are supported by plot and context, and never quite feel extraneous. Take, for example, “Facts Toward Understanding the Spontaneous Human Combustion of Errol McGee,” where the story is told, or rather, listed, in paragraphs that detail the bizarre circumstance of Errol McGee’s death-by-flame, in the same way a fire inspector might organize them.
As far as “spots” go, David Means has certainly found his, and he knows it. With three previously published and widely celebrated short-story collections already behind him, Means’ “The Spot” only further proves he’s a writer capable of consistently bold story-telling who doesn’t hesitate to push his characters to their absolute breaking point, and possibly beyond. (Naomi Huffman)
By David Means
Faber & Faber, 176 pages, $23