For the Kalamazoo Gazette, 08-08-10
Means explores stories of ‘victims’
Kalamazoo writer seeks a different, darker perspective
A narcoleptic fit of a road: two lanes stretching east from South Haven, running past defunct blueberry farms, weather-beaten homes. Always a couple named Judy and Jack, stoned in the backseat, unaware, embracing softly until the moment the car violates the meridian line and confronts a tractor trailer, hauling crated cherries out of Traverse City. Then there’s an abundance of fruit and blood and sparks spread out across the dark road.
— “Michigan Death Trap,” from The Secret Goldfish (2004)
Drugged-out, ill-fated lovers. Murderous, nearly-crazy-with-hunger tramps. Fatalistic bank robbers. Lost, callow prostitutes. Down-and-out souls who depend too heavily on what they call “the mystery of chance.”
Award-winning short-story writer and Kalamazoo native David Means is, he contends, nothing like the desperate, isolated characters in his fiction.
“I don’t feel that way at all,” laughs Means, speaking by phone from his home in Nyack, N.Y., where he teaches at Vassar College and lives with his wife, Geneve, and their 18-year-old twins, Miranda and Max. “I’m a relatively optimistic kind of guy.”
As for the dark, often gritty tales he writes, with its hopeless protagonists whose backs are usually hard against the wall, “That’s just where you’ve got to go” for the stories he wants to tell. “I’m more interested in the victims. I don’t really see (these characters) as heroes.”
Means gives us a clue as to his feelings about his creations in “Nebraska,” from his just-released collection, The Spot: One of the characters bleaches her hair, “and for a few days she felt like Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits ….” That reference to the 1961 movie starring damaged actors — Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift died not long after its completion — playing damaged people lets us know the author agrees his characters are doomed. But he believes they deserve some compassion, too.
Or take the mean, sad figures in “The Botch.” They’re planning a bank robbery in Ohio and they talk and think about it, endlessly. On the day of the theft, it all goes wrong, of course.
“The reader gets the whole picture, the characters don’t,” Means explains. “They’re trapped, they can’t get beyond the moment they’re in. The only tools they have is talking.
“… We’re all building our narratives in our heads.”
Means, a 1980 Loy Norrix High School graduate who left Kalamazoo to attend the College of Wooster in Ohio, recalls rooming with “some drugged-out kids” in a grim boarding house in Wooster. Means says he “sat and stared at the bank across the street, an old-fashioned Midwestern bank.”
He wasn’t planning a robbery, mind you. He wanted to write about planning a robbery.
“But we all know the bank-robbery story. We’ve all seen (the movie) Dog Day Afternoon. So I had to pick (the story) apart” and tell it from a different perspective.
… The idea would be to make sure we factored in the old codger and the solitude his face might contain, having, most likely, lived a widower’s life the past five years or so. (All widowers, these bank guards in Ohio, Carson said.)
— “The Botch,” from The Spot (2010)
Means, who’s “tinkering with” a novel now, admits to almost always having thought of himself becoming a writer — even when he was in pre-med. (Imagine the “deafening silence” that greeted him when he told his parents over the phone he’d decided he wanted to be a poet rather than a doctor, he smiles.)
Means “spent many years surrounded by print,” he says. He carried a Kalamazoo Gazette paper route “for years” and spent “lots of hours at the public library reading.”
When, as a boy, he visited his grandmother in Petoskey — where writer Ernest Hemingway vacationed during his youth — Means imagined himself as Nick Adams, Hemingway’s short-story alter ego. (He even would make a point to eat “Hemingway pie” at long-standing Jesperson’s Restaurant.) Means cites A Farewell to Arms as one of his literary influences.
He also confirms readers might detect some Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, Raymond Chandler and even Mark Twain in his own distinctive written “voice.”
A sense of place was vital with those writers, as it is in Means’s work — he includes references to Michigan, Ohio and New York towns, as well as the stark Dust Bowl states and the Great Lakes.
So why, in all his work — four well-received short-story collections and pieces that appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Esquire and Harper’s, among other prestigious publications — has there been little of his hometown?
Means cites the giant sludge pit in “Sleeping Bear Lament,” in Assorted Fire Events (2000), as being derived from his memories of a paper mill where he used to play. But he admits there’s not a lot else about Kalamazoo to be found.
“I draw from it …. I’ve got deep roots in Kalamazoo, with a grandfather, Harold Allen, who was a big part of Upjohn Co. for many years, as the corporate secretary and friends with W.E. Upjohn,” Means says. Allen and Means’s paternal grandmother graduated from Kalamazoo College, as did his parents. Means’s father taught sociology there.
“Everyone in my family still lives in Kalamazoo. My sister, Martha, is married to Henry Upjohn.” He visits almost every summer, as “a pilgrimage of sorts,” he adds.
“… So far I’ve held back on using it in my fiction, although I’m hoping to start digging into it soon. (Kalamazoo) was a great place to grow up because back in the ’70s we were free to roam, there was enough stuff to roam around, and yet you could handle it and kind of have a sense of yourself — always knowing where you were.”
The main reason Kalamazoo hasn’t featured more strongly is because Means has yet to successfully tackle a “coming-of-age story.” He’d like to use the city as James Joyce did with Dublin in Dubliners, in a series of smaller, interrelated stories, he says.
“I’m planning on it. It’s a city you can kind of hold in your head — not too big, not too small,” Means adds. “But it would have to be Kalamazoo of 30 or 40 years ago. It was industrial then. We still made a lot of stuff.”
That’s the mystery of chance. One minute you’re one thing, the next you’re another, and choice had nothing at all to do with it.
— “The Spot,” from The Spot
The words and the awards of David Means
Published collections of short stories by David Means:
A Quick Kiss of Redemption (1993)
Assorted Fire Events (2000)
The Secret Goldfish (2004)
The Spot (2010)
Awards for David Means:
Los Angeles Times Book Prize (2000)
The Pushcart Prize (2001)
National Book Critics Circle Award (nomination, 2001)
O. Henry Prize (2006)
Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award (shortlist, 2006)