‘Two Nurses,’ at Its Best, Holds Readers in the Palm of the Great Lakes State

What distinguishes the Michigan stories is David Means’s understanding that the Wolverine State, awkwardly jutting north from the rest of the country, can easily become a mental cul-de-sac for burnouts.

Wes Washington via Wikimedia Commons
David Means, center, in 2013. Wes Washington via Wikimedia Commons

“Two Nurses, Smoking”
David Means
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 224 pages 

There is an older form of book review, underdone these days, in which the critic focuses mainly on appraising the book’s jacket, cover design, and layout. He gushes over these incidentals for a few hundred hundred words before at the very end offering some terse note on the text itself. Oftentimes the implication here is that he has not actually read the book or does not think it is worthwhile for others to read. 

David Means’s latest collection of short stories, “Two Nurses, Smoking,” seems to invite such a review. It is a handsome volume of minimalist design; were it not a hardcover, it could easily be mistaken for a recent issue of the Paris Review. It has the appearance of a smart coffee table book. No doubt this was the effect the publicists at Farrar, Straus and Giroux had in mind, as it is such a chore these days to convince anyone to buy short fiction, let alone read it.

The short story’s relative unpopularity is a shame, considering Mr. Means works capably within the form. “Two Nurses, Smoking” is his sixth collection, bringing together several series of interconnected stories published over the last few years. The best of these examine life in Mr. Means’s native west-central Michigan. They are filled with drug-addled monologues, freak weather incidents, and a menagerie of inmates wandering around a mental institution — Mr. Means was a student of Denis Johnson at Columbia, and he clearly learned much from “Jesus’ Son.”

What distinguishes the Michigan stories is Mr. Means’s understanding that the Wolverine State, awkwardly jutting north from the rest of the country, can easily become a mental cul-de-sac for burnouts. In “Lightning Speaks,” he describes the dissolution of the Summer of Love in San Francisco as Haight-Ashbury boys incarnating “across the Great Plains, one shithole town to the next until you got to Michigan, where they staggered, clutched in the palm on the peninsula.” 

He pictures Lansing at sunrise as like a prison, where “the heavy government buildings were straining to materialize out of the dark, their white limestone walls emitting an eerie iridescence while a few sad orphaned houses stood nearby, shabby and out of place, shedding shingles and curlicues of paint.” Even the Michigander accent — which now only exists in the most isolated towns — is “confined within the nose,” he reminds us. 

The best story of the collection is “Are You Experienced?” In it, a pot dealer’s girlfriend envisions her boyfriend in his old age recounting to an unlistening audience the storied history of Michigan’s drug trade: from Bay City to Detroit and outward through all those little towns along U.S. 12 on the way to Chicago. She sees him reciting his experiences in the state “with the most spectacular precision,” all the while unable to remember what had got him started in the first place. 

In the other stories, which are mostly set along the Hudson River, Mr. Means indulges in a little too much gimmickry. The title story is composed of a series of fragments that culminate in a sex scene where each paragraph begins with a bolded “NO.” In an interview, Mr. Means said that he was trying to relay more exactly the experience of “poking around in memory.” Well and good, but the scene has all the emotional precision of an Italian pop song. 

He tries a variation on the same trick in “Vows,” a story about marriage counseling, with this particularly grating sentence: “I felt a keen injustice in the clichéd nature of our situation, that thinking it was a cliché was also a cliché, or maybe bringing it up as a cliché is even more of a cliché, and maybe even more of a cliché to bring up the fact that a cliché is a cliché.” It should go without saying that “Clementine, Carmelita, Dog,” a story told from the perspective of a runaway dog (“I wish I could make words be dog”), is unreadable.

There’s no need, though, to detract too much from what is at the very least an attractive little volume. “Two Nurses, Smoking” contains several wonderful stories and a few faulty ones. It leaves the reader with Mr. Means’s own view of the world, where “happiness and unhappiness are of course entwined; life is a helix of the two, and you can’t have one without the other — which is a cliché, of course, but also true.”

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