If there truly is such a thing as a writer’s writer, then David Means is a short-story writer’s writer. His previous collections—especially Assorted Fire Events and The Secret Goldfish—kicked up the obligatory Raymond Carver and Flannery O’Connor comparisons that always abound when writers like Means come along. The comparisons are almost never a question of style as much as they are a commentary about anyone who’s still strictly writing short stories. Means’ writing is entirely uninterested in being anything but short fiction. He doesn’t produce novel ideas that petered out, or sketches dressed up with unearned heft. Like a musician, he’s agreed to a set of rules so he can subvert them, trying to create possibility by setting limitations.
In his fourth collection, The Spot, Means assembles 13 tales that interconnect in obvious and uniquely unobvious ways. Both “Oklahoma” and “The Gulch” involve crucifixions, “The Actor’s House” and “The Junction” concern what makes a home, “Nebraska” and “The Botch” are about heists, and so on. But like the opener, “The Knocking”—a six-page single paragraph that manages to sculpt an entire man’s past, present, and future while fixating on a single instance of tapping—the meaning of anything seems to change the very moment it gets noticed.
The titular story makes mention of a point out on the surface of a vast lake where the city of Cleveland gathers its municipal water, or “the spot” where it all gets sucked down, gathered, and dispersed through pipes to the population. Meg, the girl being told the story of “the spot,” doesn’t see it, but pretends to, telling her boyfriend, “It’s right where you said it would be.” In “The Junction,” a yarn-spinning drifter called Lockjaw begins to lose hold of his audience, so he begins to weep. “He had me up until that point. Then his story fell apart,” another drifter named Hank remarks.
Like all great practitioners of the form, Means doesn’t waste a word. There isn’t enough room. His awareness of that small space necessitates a density that novelists are free to ignore. And the brilliance of these tight tales is that they’re somehow about that too—a story’s obligation to repeatedly hold up to a reader’s scrutiny. For some, that might sound too much like literary claustrophobia, but in The Spot, nothing falls apart and everything is right where it should be.