Darkness on the Edge of Town | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Darkness on the Edge of Town 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:34 pm
click to enlarge ROB PENNER
  • Rob Penner

There’s a high body count in David Means’s fiction. The Nyack resident’s fourth story collection, The Spot (Faber & Faber, 2010), includes haunting descriptions of deaths by crucifixion, stabbing, strangulation, drowning, gunfire, and spontaneous human combustion. True, there are stories in which no one dies—“Reading Chekhov” is a delicate tale of a waning affair; “A River in Egypt” portrays a desperate father and son in a hospital testing room; “The Knocking” is a comically stylized take on the noisy neighbor from hell—but the book has a magisterial bleakness, leavened by prose of surpassing beauty.

In the title story, a man tells the underage girl he’s pimping, “That little pucker on the surface out there is where the Cleveland water supply is drawn in, right there, and if you were to dump enough poison on that spot, you’d kill the entire city in one sweep.”

The image recalls a story in Means’ 2004 collection, The Secret Goldfish, in which another small-time thug watches water sluice over the lip of a fish hatchery tank. “He liked how the glossy top, coated with algae and pollen dust, moved at a leisurely pace until it got to that little razor-blade spot where it roared over the edge. That spot. That’s where he lived all the time.”

It’s an apt metaphor for Means’s work. Like his northern-midwestern compatriots Joel and Ethan Coen, he’s a technical virtuoso who can jump-cut from harrowing cruelty to an image so gorgeous it makes you gasp. His humor is often pitch-black, as when a teenage hooker in “The Spot” strangles a john with his bolo, then tries on the denture that pops from his mouth, intoning, “What’s up, Doc?” The story ends on a note of compassion, as water released from a whirlpool flows “into the relative calm of the river as it headed toward the merciful breadth of Lake Ontario.”

Means published his first collection, A Quick Kiss of Redemption, in 1993, but Assorted Fire Events put him on the map in 2000, beating out Philip Roth for the Los Angeles Book Prize and garnering a National Book Critics Circle nomination. He has been teaching at Vassar College since 2001, and is reading tonight at the Campus Bookstore. He sits outside Babycakes Café on a sunny fall day, discussing his craft between bites of a BLT.

Dressed in a dark blue shirt and jeans, Means has the kind of rumpled handsomeness that inspires undergraduate crushes. His manner is friendly, but far from relaxed; he rarely gives in-person interviews. Though he clearly enjoys talking about writing and literature, questions about his own life make him physically uncomfortable. He twists in his seat, eyes darting behind dark-framed glasses as he gauges exactly how much he wants to reveal.

Means grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan (“Glenn Miller!” he says with ironic glee), and majored in English at the College of Wooster, Ohio. Though he moved to New York in his twenties, receiving an MFA in poetry from Columbia, and has lived with his family in Nyack for nearly two decades, his Michigan roots have a powerful hold on his psyche. “I don’t think you can take the Midwest out,” he says with a grimace, describing himself as “an ex-pat” and “a recovering ex-midwesterner.”

An eclectic reader, Means also cites photographers Steven Shore and W. Eugene Smith as inspirations, along with a lot of musicians. The album cover of Springsteen’s Nebraska is framed above his desk. “I’ve loved Springsteen and Dylan my whole life,” he declares. “I come from a working-class town, near a paper mill. We thought Springsteen was ours.”

Means compares assembling a story collection to “putting together an old-fashioned record album: slow song, fast song. I think there’s a resonance. The story you just read is still in your mind when you’re reading the next.” He writes stories one at a time, frequently setting them down for long stretches before going back to revise, which he likens to “interrogating the draft, putting it under a very bright light.” He often holds back finished stories that don’t seem to fit a specific collection.

Means is among an elite group of authors who specialize in short fiction—Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley—and he’s often asked why; the Paris Review once published a Q&A titled “Why David Means Is Not a Novelist.” Still, there’s a long hesitation before he responds. “I could easily say, ‘I always read short stories,’ which I did. But I think it’s more a matter of what tool I could find that I could work with to do what I wanted to do,” he says. “Just by virtue of being the length they are, whether they want to or not, stories remind us of our own mortality, of the fleetingness of things.”

In a New York Times blog, Means wrote, “We don’t tell novels at the kitchen table, we tell stories. We carry them around, mull them over, twist them, pass them on to someone else, who, in turn, adds a few things—and that’s what interests me: the magic of how a small story grants us an enormous amount of grace.”
He’s made two abortive attempts at writing a novel, which he finds “hugely different. It’s like swimming out into a lake until you can’t see the shore anymore; you’re completely surrounded by it.” He may revisit one of the manuscripts someday, but has abandoned the other. “When you throw out 700 pages of something, it’s brain-numbing and sad. But nothing goes to waste as a writer. A lot of times you have to write one thing in order to write another,” Means explains, adding, “It’s easy to go into a defensive crouch about short stories versus the novel.”

Especially when your best friend is Time-anointed “Great American Novelist” Jonathan Franzen. Means admits to “a couple of weird moments” over Franzen’s meteoric rise, especially during the frenzy over The Corrections. “Jonathan came over to play tennis the day he was picked for Oprah’s Book Club. I can tell you he was extremely happy, and also a little dazed.” Both were relative unknowns when they met in New York in the late 1980s; Franzen is still Means’s first reader, except for his wife, who often reads stories aloud to him.

Means writes first drafts longhand, and encourages students to do the same, saying, “There’s less distance between yourself and the page.” There’s also a visible record of changes, and the opportunity to see the work fresh when it’s typed and printed. It’s also nice reaching the end of a page. “The scrolling screen is really dispiriting. I mean, infinity? Nothing like knowing you can write forever.” He laughs with a warmth that seems out of joint with his stories’ dark preoccupations. Talking with Means is a little like meeting a character actor—say, Steve Buscemi or Christopher Walken—who specializes in portraying twisted souls. Though he may be a prince of a guy in his offscreen life, there’s an uneasy sensation of “Where did that come from?”

Means isn’t telling. “I do have a backstory, intimate personal things in my history that I’m totally unwilling to talk about right now,” he says bluntly. “Why would I use that fuel up?” If, as Socrates noted, the unexamined life is not worth living, the overexamined life may not be worth writing about. Means’s art seems to flow from its own hidden vortex, the razor-blade spot just before something painful roars over the edge.

“Sometimes I have the urge to go on Oprah and unburden, confess,” he admits, leaning back in his chair. But he cherishes privacy. “There’s an element of this country that can devour and destroy you. I write about people in really dire circumstances, and I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it.” That’s all he will say on the subject. The rest is for fiction.

Asked how he’d describe his work to a neophyte, Means responds, “I don’t know. Fun? Cheery?” He laughs, then offers, “Traditional. At the same time, pushing the envelope formally. I’m always trying to do something new. And I’m trying to engage with the reality of America right now, of poor people being tucked into certain corners and hidden. I’m not concerned with people who aren’t in some kind of predicament. I know there’s a lot of people out there who actually can’t afford cell phones.”

Like all writers today, Means wonders how new technologies will affect reading habits. He’s just recorded a podcast of “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” the freshly edited New Yorker story he’ll read at the bookstore tonight. “If you don’t keep rotating in this culture, you will disappear. The Internet is a portal that takes us away from loneliness. Writers used to sit around waiting for the mailman, or even the morning newspaper in its little tube. Now there’s an infinite mailman arriving all day long.”

Not long ago, Means rode home on the train across from a family who’d obviously just been to visit Vassar. It was one of those autumn days when traveling alongside the Hudson feels like a gift from God. “They’d never been up here before, but they weren’t even looking outside,” he says, incredulous. “Look out the fucking window!”

He gives the same advice to his writing students. “Look out the fucking window. Stop walking the same route every day to the same place, pick yourself out of your rut. I think that’s what art does. It pushes us to see something.”

What does David Means see? From his story “The Gulch”:

There were—any policeman could tell you—those who were preordained to fiery deaths, those most certain to be found in a ditch outside of town, those whose future lay out there like a bear trap, ready to snap shut when just the right amount of pressure was applied to just the right spot.

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