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Heartland myth

The Secret Goldfish: Stories, David Means, Fourth Estate: 224 pp., $22.95

September 05, 2004|Ben Ehrenreich | Ben Ehrenreich is a writer whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, the Village Voice and McSweeney's.

David MEANS knows his way around the English language. Take this description of a man out fishing, clipped from the first sentence of the first story in "The Secret Goldfish," his newest collection of stories: "the casting of the spoon in lazy repetitions, the slow cranking, the utterance of the clicking reel, the baiting of the clean hook, and the cosmic intuitive troll for the deep pools of cool water beneath the gloss of a wind-dead afternoon." Admire for a moment the rhythmic alliteration -- all those hard Cs building a phonic skeleton of sorts, the soft, binding glue of the long smooth OO's, the tension and clamor of those fast, staccato Ts.

The story, called "Lightning Man," is about a Midwesterner whom lightning strikes not twice but many times. The first time he is hit, Means writes, "There was a paradigm shift: he identified purely -- at least for a few months -- with the fish, dangling, held by an invisible line tossed down from the heavens."

The second time he loses all affection for the woman he loves and the third strike evaporates a friendship. "The fourth had his name on it and was a barn burner, the kind you see locking horns with the Empire State Building." He taunts it: "[O]h storm of narrative and calamity. Oh glorious grand design of nature. Rage through me." It does, and The fifth strike kills his wife. The sixth sends him a vision of "a doppelganger of sorts" emerging from his body, "a little stoop-shouldered man, thin and frail.... A soil-sniffer of the old type ... [who] longed more than anything for the clouds to burst open." They do: The seventh strike "split into five wayward crabs of raw voltage, and speared him in the brow the way you'd poke a shrimp with a cocktail fork." That's not even the end of the story.

But "Lightning Man" aims at more than just verbal pyrotechnics, toward a mythology of the American heartland, if we can temporarily strip that phrase of kitsch and re-endow it with its due portion of barrenness and violence. Lurking barely concealed within the tale is a passionate thirst for some brand of final reckoning. The story practically growls.

If only the same passion stuck to all the tales in "The Secret Goldfish." Some sifting is required here: When Means' work does not growl, it barely glowers. The title story, though funny at times and as finely crafted as most of Means' work (his last collection, "Assorted Fire Events," was awarded a Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2001), is a standard New England divorce tale, except that it orbits more tightly around the much-neglected family goldfish than the "safe, confided Connecticut lives" of its human characters.

Cuteness does not save it from conventionality. The same goes for the two adultery narratives included here, one of which is sectioned alphabetically: "A) You see her entering the car, disappearing from sight, smooth skin and golden hair caught gossamer by the sunlight.... " The other alternates sections of confessional narrative with bracketed third-person accounts of what was omitted from the first-person sections. ("[Omitted here is the perplexity he felt over his split feelings....]") Here the cuteness is stylistic rather than substantive, but again it only heightens the banality of his subject.

Several of the other stories -- one about a blind man who falls down the stairs, another about various apparitions of giant anthropomorphic dust devils, another narrated by a "bog man," a perfectly preserved corpse dug out of an Ohio field -- are, for all their imagination and eloquence, strangely flat. Means is consistently clever, and it's a rare story that does not contain at least a phrase worth remembering: "the random, wildly unkempt history of wind," or an old piano that produces "a dog-eared tone, slightly yellow," or "the long-simmering nothingness of the fields." For all that, though, in too many of these stories, he doesn't seem to be saying much, or not much that matters enough to him.

About a third of them, though, are quite wonderful. "The Project" is a small delight, a hard little opal of a story about a man determined to "stake out and occupy each province of [his] household

"Blown From the Bridge," about a car that is, yes, blown from a bridge one gusty winter's day, has a pretty, frigid Midwestern sadness to it. "Michigan Death Trip" lists, without any pretense of plot, fragmentary accounts of unpleasant ways to die in that state. It holds some of the same angry pleasure as the Jim Carroll Band's punk epic, "People Who Died," and offers salutary life lessons to boot: Don't drive a van full of teenagers onto a freshly frozen lake; don't get high and play Darth Vader with long fluorescent bulbs; don't take too many pills bought from a humpbacked boy named Earl who has carved the name of the son of God into his knuckles. Best of all is "Sault Ste. Marie": a love story, a crime spree, more pills, much exhilaration and despair, deadpan beauty and doomed romance. It's so lovely I want to quote the whole thing.*

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