Monday, July 8, 2013

Assorted Fire Events by David Means

I’ve made a pact with myself this year, as I complete work on a collection of stories, to read more of the collections already out there and which, for some reason, I’ve mostly ignored until now. It’s been a gaping discrepancy in my reading, for certain, one I’m trying to remedy. And so I’m late to discovering David Means and his short fiction. I’ve just finished Assorted Fire Events, which first appeared in 2000 and garnered immediate attention and several awards.
Means has an evocative style, mostly straightforward in vocabulary and yet emoting the vast network that sometimes lies beneath what is said simply. He reminded me of one of my favorite writers, Kent Haruf, in this way. But they differ quite a bit too. Means’ sentences stretch and undulate and wrap around. Memory crops up, the world presses in, the characters often retreat within. The reader is led, always led, along the character’s path but also within the character’s heart. The surroundings are always important—buildings, the results of human effort, earth, weather—all the elements of our shared stage.
“Last thoughts don’t come easily, last thoughts rising above the shock and pain and the roar of blood to the eardrums and colors splashing behind eyelids, and ping of water dripping off the tunnel wall, the shuffled footfalls of the boys taking their leave, leaving him behind against the wall.”
This passage gives a flavor of the writing and honestly, I didn’t take very much time choosing it because everywhere in Means’ prose there are sensory details and human experience, all at once. He has a way of portraying the range of human thought in all its confusion and strange associations. In several stories, characters contemplate a life-changing event, or a regret, or a decision, while engaged in something seemingly non-related. Such as in Coitus, wherein a man is reminded of his deceased brother during moments of infidelity and he contemplates what has brought him to his actions. Because this is how life is, things often signify something no one else would understand and memories surface, uninvited.
You might say that Means gravitates towards the painful and even unsavory aspects of human existence and I will admit, there were sections I wish I had not read. The opening story, Railroad Incident, August 1995, details a brutal attack and is quite harrowing. In another, Sleeping Bear Lament, a man regrets inexplicably knocking out a classmate’s front teeth when he was in school. Moments of violence and tragedy. Moments of hopelessness and futility. Several of Means’ characters are indigent or alone; many are unhappy. And yet the overall effect wasn’t devastating; it just felt like wisdom and sometimes, truth.
Means is concerned with setting and I loved the way he worked with metaphor, such as two stories in which people were literally lost into the earth (one a result of bad land development practices, the other youthful carelessness) and others are left behind to contemplate the person, the memory, both gone through sands of time, both lost and reduced as we all must be. There is an ongoing examination of human industry, how it hurts and hinder and leaves many behind.
And I should talk about the title story, which is a listing of small vignettes, all relating to fire, some footnoted in an almost jocular way to remind us it is the author drawing the connection between them. As is the case with all stories, those we tell to others and the way we choose to tell them.
Assorted Fire Events is a bracing, powerful collection of stories and as often happens with brilliance, I can’t do it justice here. Anyone unconvinced about the literary worthiness and possibilities for short fiction can look no further than David Means’ writing. It’s all here. And now there’s a benefit to my late discovery—I can seek out his other collections, four in all, and catch up.


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"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka