BOOK REVIEW: Instructions for a Funeral by David Means

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Acclaim follows David Means. Nominated for a Man Booker [for his novel ‘Hystopia’] and with four short story collections already under his belt, Means has been compared to Alice Munro and Raymond Carver. Illustrious company indeed. His fifth short story collection is Instructions for a Funeral. To draw comparison to Carver for a moment, what Means does so well throughout Instructions for a Funeral is give voice to a wide array of American voices – lovers, drifters, the heartbroken and from the margins of time and American space. The prose is truly cemented in the nation – the collection fully formed.

Boasting fourteen pieces, some previously published in the likes of The Paris Review and The New Yorker, there are interconnected themes throughout – violence and trauma, passion and quiet comedy. Fate and destiny make appearances too – many characters spend moments looking back upon their actions and questioning what drove them to make those choices. Means is a reflective writer, and a difficult writer too. His style isn’t always easy, the structure is meticulous, yet that is the payoff in the end.

Fist Fight, Sacramento, 1950’ illustrates Means’ reflective state. Though we start, as the title would suggest, with a fist fight, in Sacramento, in 1950 [I do enjoy a literal title] what Means does here is transpose, or perhaps, transmute the story from violence to a life-long love. The fight starts between two young men – Sutter and Bergara – but what really births itself in that moment is a decades long story between Bergara and Sarah – ‘years later […] she’d see the significance, the hugeness, of that single glance, and the luck of having arrived at the tavern…’. She watches Bergara fight, and from then on, we are treated to various memories as they look back upon that moment. It’s gorgeous writing.

Compassion, and the ever-enduring nature of love, make themselves known in ‘The Chair’ too [and ‘Fatherhood: Three’]. A tale of fatherhood, the piece is littered with memories, the repetition of ‘I think’ serving to solidify the retrospective nature. Towards the end of the story, the father’s son falls after ignoring his father’s request to stop running away from him. Yet the sucker punch isn’t the fall itself, which isn’t fatal, it’s Means’ way of setting the reader back on course, back on what he’s trying to convey within the piece – passion, love, the difficulty of being a father and swimming in uncharted waters. Yet what is also painted here, is a very real image of eastern America, specifically New York and the surrounding areas. This is furthered in ‘Instructions for a Funeral’. Again, the title is literal – a man [William Kenner] involved in organized crime is writing the instructions to his own funeral. And again, in detail, Means offers the reader an intricate geographic sense of place. We tip from Lancaster-Pennsylvania, to Newburgh, to Beacon, the Hudson Valley, Manhattan and beyond. [I can’t lie, after reading I googled each name to locate them on a map.] The piece is comical too.

But if the east gets a mention, then so does the west in ‘El Morro’, a gripping tale of a young man who takes captive two down and out women, leaving one lonesome at the Zuni Reservation in New Mexico. Means transports us there, from ‘Santa Cruz, all the way down the Pacific Coast Highway, through Los Angeles and out to Palm Springs.’ His characters depicted with equal precision.

Originality is at play throughout Instructions for a Funeral. A prime example is perhaps ‘The Terminal Artist’, a story that sees a man come to terms with the fact that a friend of his was murdered by a serial killer nurse. Once more we return to a retrospective nature, the narrator looking back upon the events with unease. We too, see fate and destiny draw their hands – ‘I found it hard to believe that this dear friend of mine had succumbed to a complex array of chances, an infinite ray of factors.’ As humans, we are always at the mercy of such impalpable things. And isn’t it true too, that life really is just a series of complex chances. Means doesn’t let this notion pass him by.

A wonderful collection from a wonderful writer, there is much praise to be given for Instructions for a Funeral. Thematically connected [though ‘El Morro’ potentially stands alone], Means is reflective throughout. Perhaps overdone in certain areas – I do think there was room for less deliberate choices in presenting the ruminative nature of each piece, together, the collection is complex and layered. Not an easy read, but a worthy one at that.

Instructions for a Funeral is published by Faber & Faber and is available here.

David Means

David Means is the author of A Quick Kiss of Redemption,Assorted Fire Events, and The Secret Goldfish. His work has appeared in The New YorkerHarper’sZeotrope and Best American Short Stories. He lives in Nyack, New York, and teaches at Vassar College.

Reviewed by Emily Harrison 

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