Grace in the Hole

Instructions for a Funeral: Stories BY David Means. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 208 pages. $25.

The last lines of the last story in David Means’s new collection, “Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother,” provide clues to his method and to the goals of his fiction. A man is driving away from the addiction-treatment center where he’s visited his homeless brother. He’s imagined a scenario of suicide: the discovery of his brother’s boots “near the edge of the palisade, the sheer drop-off to the shore of the river,” implying a spectacular jump that would indicate a sort of fatal liberation. He’s aware that his brother’s life will never yield such an episode of tragic catharsis. Nonetheless he has an epiphany, a feeling of “keen elation.” The man is an authorial surrogate, clearly a writer if not the writer, if only because he thinks of his life in Aristotelian terms, as a narrative with a structure of meaning, not simply a string of events. Means presents him in the second person, as “you,” in order to implicate the reader in the process of telling the story. The last six pages consist of sentences that begin with the words “It’s not just that,” accumulating details, impressions, and thoughts that are supposedly inadequate to telling the story but in practice constitute its telling. Here are those final lines, the source of the man’s elation:

It’s the fact that once again you were joyfully facing the harsh limitations of reality, admitting that it all had to be taken and turned into a story of some kind. Otherwise, it would just be one more expression of precise discontent. And expressions of discontent—you think in the car, sitting in front of your own house now—no matter how beautiful, never solve the riddle of the world, or bring the banality of sequential reality to a location of deeper grace.

Means is relentlessly seeking grace in his fiction, and the quest takes the form of a highly self-conscious mode of writing. Even when the task of telling the story isn’t foregrounded, as in “Two Ruminations,” there’s a constant flight from “sequential reality.” The implication is that a linear mode of telling would be insufficient, that such a telling would not only be banal but would risk missing the point. So, in a typical Means story, scrambling narrative time and shifting point of view—basic techniques for any writer—are elevated to higher principles. They may be the very things that generate grace. What, after all, does this man have to be joyful about? His brother’s life is wrecked, to the point that he consoles himself with a fantasy of a romantic ending—suicide, cliff jump—in place of the not-ending of actual reality, a cycle of addiction, recovery, and relapse. Where exactly does this “deeper grace” reside? Is it in the moment, told in the subjunctive, when the man offers his brother a cup of coffee and he leans back and drinks it, “exposing his gaunt breastbone, which looked covered in tissue paper”? Did that moment, qualified with a “would,” ever even happen? Is it in the story’s first half, in which a homeless old man is glimpsed “daintily” poking at trash with a stick, and his motions are juxtaposed with those of a wide receiver making a catch, of children learning hand-eye coordination, of the famous Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter pausing over the keys of his instrument during a concert? Is the homeless man the brother of the title, the one in the treatment center? What do either of them have to do with Sviatoslav Richter if they aren’t his implied analogue or opposite?

A strange thing about Means’s fiction is the way it stimulates skepticism in the reader. I often found myself resisting the stories in Instructions for a Funeral. I questioned the logic of his associative logic. I didn’t feel particularly implicated by the narrative “you” of “Two Ruminations.” I suspected that Means’s constant digressions might simply be evasions, ways of compensating for a paucity of dramatic action, heaping details on an incident or circumstance that resisted his attempts to imbue it with meaning (or impose on it that deeper grace). But just as often I found myself doubting my own doubts, turning back the pages to check whether a detail I took for deliberate misdirection might not be the key to the story. Elaborate syntax leaves the end of a sentence, half a page or even a page distant from its start, in a state of queasy grammatical limbo that sends you back picking through stacked clauses (and nested parentheses) looking for verbs, marveling at how he got you from here to there, or shaking your head that he would even try. Means’s resistance of familiar fictional conventions breeds a resistance in the reader (that is, you or me), something often satisfying but also not unlike an itch. The untidiness of his compulsive narrative layering has made him one of the most fascinating and confounding American fiction writers of the past few decades.

Means was born in 1961 and belongs to a cohort of fiction writers who made their mark with novels. It would be easier to ignore this fact if Instructions for a Funeral weren’t dedicated to Jonathan Franzen and his partner Kathryn Chetkovich. But it’s probably a fact best ignored. Means’s writing doesn’t have much in common with Franzen’s. He doesn’t do broad dramatizations of the zeitgeist. His self-consciousness and abiding interest in addiction suggest bonds with David Foster Wallace, but he doesn’t share Wallace’s playfulness, his impulse to ingratiate himself with and repulse the reader all at once, or his conception of addiction as a universal metaphor for American national life. The other writer of this bunch to work mostly in the short form, George Saunders, with his surreal invented worlds and tendency to resolve his tales in tidy rescue narratives, couldn’t be less like Means. Yet Hystopia—the novel Means published in 2016, twenty-five years after his first collection, A Quick Kiss of Redemption—embraced many tendencies more associated with his peers than with the Means we knew from his stories. Here was a counterfactual America in which John F. Kennedy is serving a third presidential term because he was never assassinated; veterans are treated with a hallucinogen called Tripizoid that smothers (or “enfolds,” in the novel’s lingo) traumatic memories; an escapee from this program goes on a killing spree across Michigan; biker gangs rove the land; cities burn; and so on.

We knew Means had a taste for alternate endings, if not outright alternate worlds, from “Railroad Incident, August 1995”—the opener of his prizewinning 2000 collection Assorted Fire Events, the book that marked his break from sequential reality after a debut marked by scene-by-scene story telling that drew comparisons to John O’Hara. A man wandering railroad tracks in a daze is beaten to death by a gang of punks, but the narrator offers a counter narrative of survival that sees the man wake up to be rescued by a kindly priest. Hystopia was a more elaborate veering from reality, and it signaled its technical daring from its first few pages with shades of Pale Fire’s gamesmanship: The author of a novel-within-the-novel is quoted by his grandfather, from an interview included in a psychologist’s report quoted in an editor’s note—four levels of meta-textual layering. The novel was an imaginative leap, but its heart remained in familiar territory: Means’s native Michigan and its landscape, stories of family and violence. His unmistakable ambition was greeted with a Booker nomination and plenty of praise, but Hystopia is still a novel awaiting a larger audience. It hasn’t yet been assimilated into the larger conversation or our wider understanding of Means as a writer.

Instructions for a Funeral doesn’t make that task any simpler. Many of the stories predate Hystopia and none would have been out of place in Assorted Fire Events. The best of them have a mythic quality, the kind achieved by rearranging elements worn to the point of cliché and making them strange once again. “El Morro” is the most powerful example. The story transpires along Route 66, between Joshua Tree and the sandstone butte in New Mexico that gives the story its title. We’re in the presence of a young man who won’t stop talking—about drugs, about American Indians, about his own doubtful Native ancestry, about birds, about the woman who’s riding with him and what he imagines her story to be. We see him, Lenny, from her point of view, and we know he’s a boor, because we know she’s trying to fall asleep to avoid listening, and what he has to say doesn’t much matter: The story is about her. She’s a runaway from the Midwest who’s been seduced into this punk’s car, and earlier into his bed, for lack of better options. He doesn’t really care about her, we can tell, because he won’t let her finish her own story and prefers to tell it himself.

On the road they encounter another woman, a bleached blonde with a scar on her face who “probably has Zuni blood of some sort,” Lenny thinks. She walks off her job at a roadside construction site when he hands her a pill, and joins them on the ride; the runaway moves to the back seat and watches her lover flirt with the new woman. They abandon her at El Morro after he tells her that she was lucky to meet him, to be brought to a monumental place like this from the streets of LA, and that “This is a fitting place to end this thing we’ve had.” The point of view shifts to a man named Russell, an actual Zuni, watching the scene from the visitors’ center, where he sits in front of surveillance monitors, and we see the abandoned runaway whole for the first time: “pale, spiritless, with bony hips,” “unkempt, windtangled hair,” and “the face of a girl who had lost almost everything, including her ability to speak.” He stops her from carving her name into the monument, puts her in the care of a social worker, and goes home. The story ends with him telling his “good-deed story” that night in bed with his wife.

“El Morro” transforms the elements of a classic western. The romantic white drifter becomes merely a careless cad; the American Indian a humane bureaucratic caretaker of the land; the abject, lost lady the natural focus of sympathy. Route 66 is never named, but we understand we’re in the zone of myth despite mention of traffic jams and crowds of Japanese tourists. Something unexpected, that deeper grace, emerges from Means’s many false leads. There’s similar force in several of the new stories. “Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950” delivers what the title promises, a bar fight between two teenagers separated by class, one leaning into the other and saying, “Man, do I fucking hate Okies.” The fight itself is presented in freeze-frame, with an effect not unlike the ekphrastic narration of Douglas Gordon’s installation 24 Hour Psycho in Don DeLillo’s novel Point Omega. The narrative tissue surrounding the punches elaborates the life story of the man who took offense to being called an Okie. There’s a similar slowed-down cinematic quality to “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” in which a team of FBI agents stakes out a farm to await the return of an outlaw. There’s a lot of waiting, and then a lot of bullets.

Not all of Means’s stories reward your patience as generously as “Tree Line” or “El Morro.” The title story accumulates a lot of incidental detail before unwinding into a plot about an upstate New York real estate scheme gone sour that’s difficult to muster the care to parse. My own taste runs more to Means’s stories of the down-and-out and the violent than to his churning middle-class domestic dramas, which tend to be concerned with fathers and fatherhood, but his mastery of tone in each mode is the same. And it’s ultimately tone, rather than grace or catharsis, that governs his stories. A pair of fragments included in Instructions for a Funeral imagine Raymond Carver and Kurt Cobain as working-class sons of the Pacific Northwest. It would be easy to write these off as exercises in fan fiction, but they’re something weirder—Carver glimpsed at a desk, thinking about Jack London and Chekhov and his own death; Cobain in a motel, waiting for a fix with old memories and the beginning of a song in his head. With Cobain, the suicide, Means comes up against the limits of his technique:

(How does one make a story out of the enigmatic nonstuff of self-immolation, out of the death impulse, when the will to live, bright small compact lifeblood, of baby lift, hefting the child up to hear the chortling, the bloody first giggle, gives way to the urge to avoid procreation, to find some terminal point? For God’s sake, all one can do is make raw conjecture.)

The exasperation of that last line is what Means elsewhere calls joy. His stories enact the double drama of their characters’ efforts to survive and their author’s struggle to bear witness. Their abundant pleasures emerge from the tension between the two.

Christian Lorentzen is a writer living in New York .