"Poetic, insightful, and deeply moving. David Means is one of my very favorite writers." —Tara Westover, author of Educated
Following the publication of his widely acclaimed, Man Booker-nominated novel Hystopia, David Means here returns to his signature form: the short story. Thanks to his four previous story collections, Means has won himself an international reputation as one of the most innovative short fiction writers working today: an “established master of the form.” (Laura Miller, The Guardian). Instructions for a Funeral—featuring work from The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and VICE—finds Means branching out beyond the explorations of violence and trauma with which he is often identified, prominently displaying his sly humor and his inimitable way of telling tales that deliciously wind up to punch the reader in the heart. With each story Means pushes into new territory, writing with tenderness and compassion about fatherhood, marriage, a homeless brother, the nature of addiction, and the death of a friend at the hands of a serial-killer nurse. Means transmutes a fistfight in Sacramento into a tender, life-long love story; two FBI agents on a stakeout in the 1920s into a tale of predator and prey, paternal urges and loss; a man’s funeral instructions into a chronicle of organized crime, real estate ventures, and the destructive force of paranoia.
Means’s work has earned him comparisons to Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Sherwood Anderson, Denis Johnson, Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, and Raymond Carver but his place in the American literary landscape is fully and originally his own.
"David Means is a master of tense, distilled, quintessentially American prose. Like any artist who has finely honed his talent to its strongest expression he is a brilliant craftsman whose achievement is to appear unstudied, even casual . . . Each story by Means which I have read is unlike the others, unexpected and an unnerving delight." —Joyce Carol Oates
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About the Author
David Means was born and raised in Michigan. His second collection of stories, Assorted Fire Events, earned the Los Angles Times Book Prize for fiction and a National Book Critics Circle nomination. His third book, The Secret Goldfish, received widespread critical acclaim and was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize. His fourth book, The Spot, was selected as a 2010 Notable Book by The New York Times, and won an O. Henry Prize. His books have been translated into eight languages, and his fiction has appeared The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, Zoetrope, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and numerous other publications. He lives in Nyack, New York, and teaches at Vassar College.
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I've been writing stories for thirty years now, many published, others not published but trashed, put to bed, dead in the water, so to speak; lost to me, to eternity, or whatever. There's simply no way to distill or describe what's in the stories, except to say I attempt, to say the least, to respect whatever each story seems to want — not only to want to be, but to say in its own way — each one, as far as I can see, an expression of a particular ax I must grind, particular souls in particular situations, and in some cases a voice that needs to say what it says or else (and I feel this, really, I do) it'll be lost forever to the void, the same place where most stories go, forever; the real stories of men and women who lived lives — quiet desperation! — and then died, gone forever into eternity, so to speak. It's a gut feeling, a need to reveal something and to pin it down forever, and it involves a lot of revision, fixing mistakes and covering tracks and making amends with the material itself, so that what comes out in the vision is clarified, sharpened, and made clear — to me at least, if not to the reader, who might or might not get what I want, and most certainly will get something I didn't know they'd get. That's the best part, knowing that you'll be betrayed by the reader, so to speak, no matter what you do, no matter what kind of care you take with the work: you go into the senseless vision of the vision and then you revise it into something as clear as possible and leave it at that, striking out by letting it go out, and if it's taken into the arms of print, so much the better, you say to yourself, while also feeling, at the same time, a sense that it might not be for the better: in other words it might fail you, and the reader, and pin your name in the air overhead, above the story for a few days, or years, or a hundred or more, only to find its way into the void of eternity, so to speak, lost and gone. You're aware — at least I am — that eternity will devour everything in its own time, and that whatever mark is left will be gone, because that awareness is essential to the work: a sense of catching some slice of time itself, making it stand at attention, and still. If not for the sake of a reader — somewhere in the future — then for your own sake, for a moment, at the desk on a hot summer afternoon, or wintry cold day (it does matter) while also knowing it doesn't matter one iota, really, because the persistent nature of time in relation to life is one of consumption, of time consuming life to bone, ash, dust to dust and all of that, so to speak, but for one eternal moment, the work might, or might not, live in the fire of neurons, brain to brain, in the soft silence again of time, and then fade, or, rather, fall, into nothing.
You'd better know what it is, really know, inside your flesh, before you venture in there, and if you're making a story around some violent act just because that's the central concern, or the thing your imagination latches on to, or you want to find a bridge between your inner life and the culture — which of course is most certainly violent — then you're doomed, because you're trivializing the violence by turning it into a useful tool, and no matter what, the violence you create will supersede the situation, the human situation; and though the human situation might be irredeemably bleak in the story, in life it is always surrounded by landscape, or people, who, seemingly against their will, provide symbolic grace, something beyond the horror of the violence itself, I think, at least right now, considering my father, who taught me to see the way I see, for good or bad, and who, even when facing violence himself, in one form or another, trusted in reality. In other words you'd better know what you're doing, I tell myself. You'd better have a wider worldview and a sense of cosmic justice at hand. Who am I to say? Just writing about it I feel myself taking a grand stance, but the fact that I'm writing in the confessional mode, here, isn't because of shame, not anymore, but out of a sense of humility and a respect for the truth, not wanting to betray the truth. It isn't a matter, really, of being afraid to expose my family — my sisters, my mother, my now dead father — but because to find a way into the truth in fiction I can do so only by protecting them, working around them, giving respect to the complexity of a reality that served up to them a certain kind of violence, vague as that might sound — and it does, it really does, as if I'm skirting the intensity of seeing my sister devoured by her illness, living in squalor, in agony, walking alone on a wintry day, through the windblown snow up Westnedge Hill, wearing my trilby hat, the one I had been madly searching for back at the house, one day, years ago.
To reckon with loss is to reckon with what hasn't been lost, I sometimes think, gazing out the train window, examining the river, trying to find a way into imagining the story that might come out of it someday, watching the small nubby hills give way to Bear Mountain, the tunnel, the bridge overhead slipping behind as the tracks swing past West Point, across the water, the stately hard limestone buildings — no sign of warfare or drill marching. Back when my father was dying I said again and again, at his bedside, How are you feeling? What are you thinking? I wanted him to come to me with some deep thought, some wide, arm-spreading notion of the way he felt in relation to his past, some keyed-in notion of how his anguish touched other moments in his life. I wanted a dramatic statement that reached back — the lake dock, a moment in the sun with his brothers, lying against the stony Canadian beach, chest heaving after a swim, as he remembered it in relation to the hospital setting; some weirdly twisted and yet clear-cut statement that I could carry and chew and eventually use in a story. Instead, his statements were blunt, sharp, and rudimentarily inward, always about his body as it felt at that particular moment, pinpointing pain — arms, legs, feet, feet, feet — or a need — to piss, to shit, to loosen the blood pressure cuff. He is consumed in the vortex of the moment, I thought, I think, and that was that; his eyes told the story — as he leaned forward to get out of bed, refusing my help, his arms quivering gently, the skin opaque and thin, widening to the bloom of bruise where the IV slipped in — that his only concern at the moment was twisted into the anguish, ribboned in — as I thought of it, and still think — as if all of time were nullified by a single, simple task; as if my only obligation at that juncture was to refuse my own need for something more, as I had refused it in the past, year by year. He was a man stoic and blunt. He had come from the cold, unyielding prairie and was returning to it, his eyes said. I will be gone and all this will be gone and you will not be seen by me as I don't see you now, his eyes said. In the hall, I wept as quietly as I could and walked down to the lounge where, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the blue-black wintry dark tried and failed to provide an honest answer.CHAPTER 2
FISTFIGHT, SACRAMENTO, AUGUST 1950
The fight began in a tavern called the All Star, on the outskirts of Sacramento, when a young man named James Sutter leaned over and said, vaguely, as if to no one in particular, Man, do I fucking hate Okies, and a young man named Frankie Bergara responded by lifting a fist to his chin and nodding his head slightly in the direction of the door, a gesture that said: Step outside! Sutter, in turn, reached up with his closed fist and gently touched a knuckle to his own chin. (The girls loved Sutter's chin, square and dimpled in the center. That much was for sure. The girls loved the authority of his movement, the way he stepped in his expensive boots. They admired his ease, the way his tailored cowpoke gear rested on his strong shoulders.) Bergara was short and husky, with thick, rounded shoulders, a shock of curly hair, and a broad face weathered from the sun. He moved with a slight hobble, as if his legs bowed around an imaginary saddle. His heavy arms swayed loosely at his sides as he walked down the back hallway through the smell of sawdust and urinal cakes. Kicking the back door open, aware of his cheap knock-off boots, inherited from his big brother, he felt — stepping into the warm air — a deeper inheritance that came from countless barn-loft fights with Cal, fighting until the two of them began to laugh and then his brother released his grasp, stood over him, gave him tips on technique, always ending by saying, "Don't forget, kid. If you can't get him honest, get him with some kind of sucker, because to lose a fight is to lose a fight, and to win one is to win one."
Meanwhile, Sutter went out through the front door, gathering a few spectators, mostly friends, strutting lightly with anticipation. He had been trained to fight by the family handyman, Rodney — whip-thin, dressed in overalls — who would put down his wrench, or rake, or paintbrush to offer a few tips, saying, "Dip low with the shoulder and round yourself over the punch and get back as fast as you can, focusing your weight on the arch of your foot. As long as you're aware of your feet — even if you're not aware that you're aware — as long as you keep them in mind, you'll win." Rodney, who was taciturn and quiet as he moved about the house, fixing things, clipping the hedge, had fought Golden Gloves in Chicago before moving west. When he spoke about fighting his words had an oracular quality. In the few seconds it took Sutter to walk around the back of the building, where Bergara was standing alone beneath the single streetlamp, rolling his shoulders, in those few seconds he had a keen sense that it had been bad form to call Bergara an Okie. The Sutter line had Okie roots. His great-grandfather had come from Tulsa. But that truth — he felt this, rolling his own shoulders — was buried under recent good fortune. He was going to follow in his father's footsteps in the fall and attend Yale. Anyway, Bergara was mostly Basque, or something like that, a mixed blood that gave him curly hair, big shoulders, and a fireplug chest.
There were about fifteen kids behind Sutter, most of them from town. Behind Bergara, a few ranch kids stared at the ground, or out at the land behind the tavern. The town kids wore genuine silver belt buckles, plaid shirts with pearl snaps, and had hair barbered close to their clean necks. The ranch kids had faded jeans and T-shirts rolled tight around their biceps, and windblown hair. They watched as Sutter threw a few phantom punches and then stopped to take off his class ring, tucking it in his watch pocket. Bergara put his fists in position, scrutinizing Sutter as he reached and touched his collar and then ran his fingers through his thick hair before putting his own fists up. The touch of the collar was the habitual move of a kid who wore a tie most of the time. It seemed to be saying, Punch me first, you two-bit dirt hopper, toss the first one at me and let's get this started so I can get home and take a nice, long, warm bath.
The kids on Bergara's side had watched him fight enough times to know his tics, the way he retreated after landing a punch and shuffled a few seconds with his arms straight down and his chest pushed forward before heading back in. He'd taken much bigger men. Speed came cheap in these parts, but his ability to take his time, to fight carefully, seemed to come not only from the brutality of his life, from the chores he did on the ranch, lugging water lines, working the fences, and all that livestock shit, corralling and branding and shoving, but also from the patience he had learned standing in a field with a flag, waiting for the duster plane, staking out the horizon, aware of the surrounding grid of acreage. Then, with the bandana around his mouth and the flag raised, he guided the first sweep of pesticides, standing as far to the side as possible but close enough to go back out to guide the next release, the sound of the plane fading to silence until it circled around again. As they watched Bergara — in that split-second tension before he threw his first punch — they saw the weight fall back on his heels as his arm began a forward motion and then, suddenly, moved back again as he gave a warning to Sutter, to avoid making a sucker punch. Then he threw a hard jab to Sutter's solar plexus. It was a good, clean punch. Sutter saw it coming, but it still connected. (Some of the rich kids on Sutter's side had not seen the warning move, or the stepping back, and scored it as a sucker punch.)
Just before the jab, in the tension as Sutter stood with his hair fluffing in the breeze, it was possible, if you were looking carefully, to see that he was thinking about his place in the world in relation to how it might look to Bergara. Time lives retrospectively inside a fight. It doesn't slow down. It tightens so that one move locates a relation to the moves before it. The point of a fight like this was to reverse the flow of time, to reduce everything to an effect and cause, and in doing so to erase the everyday tedium of time. Everything that happened before the jab meant something. Everything after the jab gathered meaning in the moments before it was created.
You must never disregard your place in this world in relation to the way folks see you, Sutter's father liked to say. We've had good luck along the way but it was only luck, and to think of it as some God-given truth puts you in a dangerous position. To think you're in his good graces is to throw yourself off-balance, and to be off-balance is to open yourself up to the whims of those who have a better footing in the truth. (These words were usually spoken after dinner, with a damask of port glinting in candlelight.) I've done some of my best speculating with a full-blown awareness that luck was the only thing involved, and notsome sense that everything I have here — his father said, sweeping his arm from one end of the dining room to the other — came out of Providence, but more out of the way I've been able to corral my chances into a formable stampede. And then his thoughts would begin to unravel because he was a man who theorized and speculated beyond his abilities and often found what at first seemed to be profound and weighty thoughts breaking apart into something lacy, gauzy.
Sutter held his arms up and kept his mind on his feet. The wind suddenly rose, bringing the smell of jasmine, dust, and gasoline. In his ringing ears, he could hear the faint, absentminded whistle Rodney made in the garage when he was working alone, concentrating on something — a saw cut, or getting a wrench into position, or when he was out trimming the box hedge along the back of the house. And he was hearing that sound as he unleashed the wild, flamboyant haymaker that had begun secretly, as he was stumbling, relieving the force of Bergara's punch back onto his heels, transferring energy as his shoulders rotated to his left while his arm, ambling in a wide arc, moved back to catch up with the rest of his torso (his fists tightening, fingers curled) — and then, in what looked to those watching to be one fluid movement, his arm moved on its own accord, landing his fist on the point of Bergara's chin, sending him sprawling back into the arms of his friends, who held him for a few seconds, saying, "Take his fucking head off, Bergara, do it for your brother."
The fight stayed inside the circle of light from the streetlamp. A daytime fight would have no such borders. A daytime fight would often move from the back of a bar all the way to the front; or into the field; or, in some cases, depending on those fighting, it would end with the blow of an implement, a scrap of lumber or a crowbar. Nighttime fights had the formality of the circle surrounded by night wind and the cool dark.
For a few seconds, as the two fighters stood and swayed, there was a silence that expressed a need for a larger narrative. It wasn't enough, the air said, to simply fight over the Okie comment. It wasn't enough to have one more Sacramento fistfight between a wealthy town boy and a ranch boy. The air begged for a deeper significance.
Then someone said, "Kick that silver fucking spoon out of his teeth, Bergara," and on Sutter's side, someone said, "Knock the clodhopper's jaw off, clean his yokel clock," while the girls remained silent — there were three or four of them — and pitted the elegant beauty of Sutter's dimples and clean jaw against the rough, blunt complexity of Bergara's face.
(With the exception of a young woman named Sarah Breeland, who worked the fountain at the five-and-dime store in town and had talked with Bergara once or twice, setting a milkshake in front of him, seeing in his eyes the sophisticated kindness that came from hard toil. Knowing, too, talking to him — he spoke carefully, his words barely audible in the din of the store, the cheep of canaries in the pet section, the popcorn machine popping — that he understood a certain type of quiet that came from living on the margins, not only of life but of the town itself, for she lived in a house not far from his ranch, tending her sisters while her mother went to the Sutters' home to clean. She had gone a number of times to the Sutter house to stand with her mother and watch as she worked the iron-press, the starchy steam puffing as she pushed the lever down and made tight creases while her nimble fingers lifted and readjusted.)
Sarah caught Bergara's eye as it swayed over Sutter's shoulder and gave him a slight smile and a nod, as if to indicate that a secret might pass between them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Instructions for a Funeral"
Copyright © 2019 David Means.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950,
The Terminal Artist,
Farewell, My Brother,
The Mighty Shannon,
Instructions for a Funeral,
The Butler's Lament,
The Ice Committee,
The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,
Carver & Cobain,
Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother,
Also by David Means,
A Note About the Author,