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The Remains of the Day

ASSORTED FIRE EVENTS By David Means; Context Books: 166 pp., $22

April 29, 2001|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

When he was 13, David Means writes in a footnote to the title story of his remarkable collection, "Assorted Fire Events," an arsonist torched a number of summer cottages in northern Michigan, including one next to his grandparents'. "I loved the sight," he writes, "and found a place for it in my lineup of memorable images. In particular, I liked the way the huge pine trees all around the cottage were reduced to brittle towers."

These brittle towers, these damaged bystanders, are the subjects of Means' most successful stories. In the world according to Means, the charred remains, the tragedies at the centers of the clearings, are unspeakable and therefore indescribable. Any possibility of understanding that a short story can bring to these disasters can come only through an examination of the singed observers closest to the fire events, the outlines that define the object.

Means' singed observers--it is hard to call them characters because it is events that are at the center of his stories--are fairly equally divided between the frozen northland of Michigan and the semirural bedroom communities of the Hudson River an hour's ride north of New York City. Death is generally present. Water and trains give Means a Freudian field day of locations.

In addition, Means is an author of parentheses, of jump shifts, of sudden warps into commentaries that just as quickly drop back to reality, fatally changing our ability to see with just one eye at a time. In "Coitus," the illicit act at the center of an affair in a small town on the Hudson River is ordinary enough to allow the adulterer a parenthesis to contemplate the death of his brother, the wife in the city, the repository of guilt that is the First Congregational Church just across the river in New Jersey, before returning to the act and "the pink behind the eyelids and the wetness."

In "The Interruption," the opening of the sinkhole in the suburban backyard is never actually mentioned, the entire story being a parenthesis, much like the scorched pines surrounding the charred cottage of the title story. Means' least successful stories, in fact, including "The Gesture Hunter," are the ones in which he seems to balk at the subtleties of his own gestures and to shove our noses in the charred remains of the beach cottage.

So why, with all these tics and narrative no-nos, is "Assorted Fire Events" a book that not only will educate short-story writers on the craft of the story for years to come but can also move present-day readers to surprising tears?

One answer, perhaps, can be found in the astonishing story that opens the book, "Railroad Incident, August 1995." Ostensibly the tale of a depressed stockbroker ('a dainty man in a white dress shirt tucked into pressed jeans; he was the kind of man who had his jeans dry-cleaned"), "Railroad Incident" opens with its hero abandoning his BMW and his expensive Italian shoes along the Saw Mill Parkway and walking aimlessly on the train tracks toward New York City. The unnamed broker wanders devoid of particular motive, a man of only vague desires and memories--he remembers an exit off the West Side Highway at 72nd Street that does not exist. When he encounters a gang of juvenile delinquents at the entrance to a train tunnel, even they are models of generality, "skinny in that deprived way, knotty with muscles and the blue-gray shadows of various tattoos."

Is the author mocking the reader? Is he writing a story in which the obvious tragedy (obvious, at least, to anyone who grew up watching Buster Keaton and Dudley Do-Right rescue maidens tied to the railroad tracks) is foreshadowed with gestures slapped on the page with a trowel? And when the obvious finally happens and Means abandons his broker and follows the hapless engineer of the train and a grief that lasts for weeks, is the reader justified in jumping up from the chair and shouting at the page: "Wait a second, you can't do that!"

Means' confidence as a writer is so great, however, that he can survive such reactions. He can tweak the trust of his reader with every gesture (or lack thereof) and still push him back down onto his seat with a final narrative coup that leaves him gasping in wonder.

And gasp one does, at the end of "Railroad Incident" and at many other points throughout the collection. It is this confidence, Means' ability and will to leap blind off high stories and grab the heart at the last minute, that give "Assorted Fire Events" a place in my lineup of memorable fiction.

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