|A bleak inevitability pervades David Means's splendid collection of stories. If the weather's not cold in Assorted Fire Events--which it usually is--then there's an icy fist squeezing someone's heart. In the melancholy "Coitus," for instance, the protagonist, while making illicit afternoon love with a woman who is not his wife, relives the circumstances of his brother's death by drowning in a frigid Michigan river. In "Tahorah," a ravaged old trucker with a balloon pump nestled next to his heart lies helpless in the CCU as his fury mounts at the noisy, foreign-language laments going on out in the hallway. But one of the pleasures of these tough stories comes in unexpected flashes of tenderness or redemption. Sitting shiva for his daughter, a man sees his estranged brother laughing--and rather than erupting into predictable indignation, he is reminded of a treasured shared childhood.|
Means explores the fateful intersection where disparate lives touch and thereafter are never the same. In admirably efficient and elegant prose, he weaves a story of an angry, failing pipe supplier celebrating the second marriage of his wife's best friend to a business rival. Sucking down scotches, he thinks the groom needs "breaking in, like a new baseball glove. Someone should pour neat's-foot oil onto it and mash a fist around, grind it right in--get the rich freshness, that silver-spoon suck, out of those cheeks." Into this bitter musing stumbles a homeless man in search of a handout, and then the story ricochets forward in time to the aftermath of the encounter, a ruptured spleen, and inevitable divorce. In the space of a few pages entire lives are revealed.
Railroads figure in several tales--a mournful distant whistle, a bygone hobo culture, and the modern equivalent where the rail-beds and switching yards on the fringes of towns attract the homeless and the hapless. In the title piece, annotated incidents of arson and immolation, some real, some fiction, are strung together into a compelling album of calamity. Fierce and complex, illuminated by compassion, these are stories from the bitter edges of experience. --Victoria Jenkins