Review: David Means’ short stories are playful and dead serious

On the shelf

Two Nurses Smoking: Stories

By David Means
FSG: 224 pages, $26

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The sixth volume of David Means’ short stories, Two Nurses, Smoking, is a bereavement book. While much else is afoot, there is no other way to read the 10 stories gathered here. Tragedy happens, people die. The loss is insurmountable and lasting. And yet the characters of Means also manage to survive in general.

“When you are living in a certain kind of loss,” the author writes in Stopping Distance, which begins in a support group for parents of dead children, “the only recourse is to look at events as full of symbolic portents, full of signs and indicators that offer a way out of loss or that loss may never go away; it is that or the sad but pure darkness and depression without any meaning.”

Love does not end when the object of affection disappears. What’s next? How can we hold out? Such questions are at the heart of this beautiful and complicated book.

Means has never shied away from the bigger issues. “They are aware – at least I am – that eternity will swallow up everything in its own time,” he notes in his earlier collection Instructions for a Funeral, “and that whatever traces are left are due to that awareness will disappear is essential to the world: a sense of capturing a piece of time itself, letting it stand taut and still.

While “Instructions” emphasized certain motifs (the fragility of the family, the ephemeral edge of memory), “Two Nurses” addresses a related set of implications, perhaps most importantly that of meaning – or comfort. Mean’s newest characters, many of them wealthy residents of New York’s Hudson Valley, must confront the past in the form of their choices. They try to understand where something went wrong. “You want nothing more,” notes the author, “than a straight line away from grief. … All you want is some semblance of an ordered structure on your way back into the world.”

Means introduces his intentions via an unlikely mechanism: “Clementine, Carmelita, Dog,” which opens the book, is told from the perspective of a dachshund. Means is too smart to take this (or any other) point of view for granted. He interrupts—as he always will in these stories—with a series of author’s notes that effectively make the creator a character of sorts, or at least an active presence, in the narrative.

“As much of this account as possible has been translated dog into human,” this presence tells us, “and like any such translation, the human version is a thin, faint approximation of what was going on in Clementine’s mind when she was in the Forests weep and starve, old feelings overlaid with new ones.”

The cover of "Two nurses smoking" by David Means, features a flower of flat red hearts

(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

It’s a great device that effectively anticipates the limits of our suspension of disbelief, pushing the story from a gimmick to something more profound. Clementine is no stranger to grieving, or at least the canine version of it. Near her owner Claire’s armpit, she “noticed a smell that she recognized from an old friend, a lumbering animal with gray fur who was often tied outside the coffee shop in town. It was the smell of death.” After Claire died, her husband Norman gave off “his own sad smell of metal and salt” until he grabs a gun in the morning before going on the morning walk that separates him and the dog.

If the presence of Norman’s gun is reminiscent of Chekhov, Means knows what you’re thinking. “As soon as the gun was in Norman’s pocket,” he points out, “it was gone [Clementine’s] mind, complete, natural. It wasn’t some Chekhovian device that was bound to explode at some point.” Addressing the reader directly establishes complicity with a reader—a set of shared assumptions that the author will both develop and break.

Means more than once reveals the focal point of a story’s ignition – as in the title track, which revolves around two medical technicians who come to a tenuous intimacy over a period of months. “Wait,” he writes, “before they reached the hotel, they stopped for a snack, ate together, and then they smoked in the parking lot and sat back, stared up at the stars — and if you’d looked at them.” seen there and speculated about two people lingering in an upstate parking lot kissing softly and you would have extrapolated a story from that image.

The effect is meant to remind us of the invention of fiction. Paradoxically, it is this sense of playing with metatexts that might otherwise distance us that gives Means’ narratives worthiness. “This is how we salvage the past, locate the little stories and carefully transfer them to the future,” confides a grieving mother to “Stopping Distance”. At the same time she continues: “I don’t want to pass on the story of my loss. The only thing I can pass on is the stillness.” This tension is reflected in “The Depletion Prompts”, which closes the collection. “The tone of confession, if it works, will obscure the fundamental truth of the story itself,” suggests Means: “That in every confession there is always a tonal tremor of dislike and distrust, perhaps in the reader’s mind as well.”

Does Means reveal himself with such a statement? Sure, that’s part of it. But the stories here are not games or experiments; Rather, they seek to use these tools for more traditional purposes. Similar to his characters, Means can only piece together reality from fragments. That’s why so much of Two Nurses, Smoking is a collection of short scenes and sequences. It’s as if we can only see the world with glimpses, only knowing so much about ourselves.

“I’m not sure how much real life art and true art life can take,” the narrator of I Am Andrew Wyeth! argues, “because the two only meet to a delicate thin line (or point ) intertwine where memory, desire and touch begin to drift apart, repelled by the present moment.” That is the conundrum – and necessity – of art. Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing here? None of this, Means understands, is the stuff of idle speculation; it is the most essential matter of our life.

Ulin is the former book editor and book critic of The Times.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-14/from-sensitive-dogs-to-flirty-nurses-david-means-stories-are-playful-and-dead-serious Review: David Means’ short stories are playful and dead serious

Sarah Ridley

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