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Grim Reaper Essay, Research Paper

Grim reaper Assorted Fire Events David Means 165pp, Fourth Estate The penultimate story in David Means’s extremely rewarding first book is the one that gives the collection its title. In it there is a paragraph that begins like this: “One morning in Rochester, my aunt – mother of five, member of a fine, upstanding family with no deep-felt hardships (apparent from the outside), on the way to her job at the high school – took a can of gasoline, placed it in her car, drove to a quiet cul-de-sac and poured the gas over head and body and lit herself on fire. She died a few hours later, flesh consumed.” And then, at the bottom of the page a sinister footnote reads. “This is a horrible, tragic fact. It made the Times.” This chilling snippet may, of course, be fiction. Where, after all, is it written that writers can’t lie when they pretend to tell the truth? But I have to admit that when I came to it – the paragraph and then the footnote – I was tempted to believe it. It would, you see, explain a lot. This is a book about death. Sudden death, violent death, painful death, pointless death, slow death, infant death. Heart attacks, drownings, murder – all are here, recalled in lingering detail by characters whose lives are drenched in sorrow and regret and sometimes plain terror. Sometimes – even more grist here to the autobiographical mill – the deaths appear to be the exact same deaths: retold, re-examined, re-suffered by each new and (more or less) distinct narrator. So, two stories – “Coitus”, in which a man’s memory of his brother’s drowning makes it hard for him to lose himself in the redeeming intimacy of sex, and “Sleeping Bear Lament”, where the narrator is haunted by the memory of a schoolfriend who died – bleed into one another. The same slow seepage is evident in “The Widow Predicament”, where a woman shows her current lover the video she and her late husband made of their honeymoon lovemaking, knowing that it will end their relationship. Again and again, past deaths infect present events. The dead loom large in all the innocent, everyday activities of the living. Meanwhile whole images, even phrases, are repeated again and again. The “Sam” who dies in “Sleeping Bear Lament” is “swallowed whole by the earth one summer afternoon” – a death that echoes that of the baby girl in “What They Did”. Her parents unwittingly buy a house that has been built over a stream and is one day “gulped whole by the smooth turf”, drowning the family. If I am making Means sound gruesome, relentless and depressing, he isn’t. There is a purity and generosity of spirit here, a warmth and a lyricism that dignifies every thing it touches. If he has a fault, it’s that he sometimes works too hard, writes too meticulously. There is a whiff of the creative-writing class about him – each word a dart so carefully aimed, so many bull’s eyes, that he wears you out. You long to see him miss the board altogether now and then. He is at his best and most beautiful when he relaxes, when he dares make do with a single phrase instead of a clutch of alternatives. Some of his showier, more stream-of-consciousness paragraphs tell you plenty but show you very little. Whereas when a dog barks at night and the bark is “wrapped in silence”, you know just what he means. For me, the most effective, most slippery story is “Tahorah”. An irascible man lies dying slowly of a heart attack, while across the corridor a young Jewish girl is dying, much faster, after a car accident. As the older man gets sick of the noise made by the distraught relatives preparing to sit Shiva, he manages to stumble “out into the hallway half alive” to yell at them. Days later, when the girl is dead and buried, this furious interruption by the “crazy man” in the hospital is remembered by one of her relatives and causes a wry smile. “It was only the first bit of weight off of his grief but it was significant in that it was the first.” So, two worlds collide and spring apart again – and the effect is both surprising and surprisingly optimistic. It’s a measure of Means’s originality that this sort of thing happens all the time in life, yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone bother to express it so devastatingly in literature.

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