When “The Spot,” his fourth collection of short stories featuring his usual suspects of down-and-outs and troubled souls, was released six years ago, David Means told me in an interview that he’d been thinking about writing a novel — “the commercial pressure” is immense, he confessed — but that he wasn’t quite ready to make the big leap.
He knew he’d want to draw on his native Michigan, and particularly his hometown of Kalamazoo. (Yes, that’s a real town.)
“It 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,” he wrote in an email then.
But now that his novel, “Hystopia,” is here, released last month to enthusiastic reviews, it’s a major surprise.
There are the now-expected lowlifes skulking about and, mostly, up to no good, set to a soundtrack of The Stooges and Iggy Pop (another Michigan native). But they’ve been dropped into a strange 1970s world of the writer’s making — not an “alternate history,” as early reviewers have deemed it, but “a dystopian novel in an historical moment,” as the novel’s title suggests, Means has countered.
John F. Kennedy is into his third term, parading around the nation daring more assassins to try to take him out; the pointless Vietnam War drags on; and returning vets are treated for their traumas with a controversial drug to cauterize their memories, then let loose into the world — for many of them to make their way to the author’s beloved Michigan.
“It’s the territory I know physically,” Means said a few weeks ago by phone from his home in Nyack, N.Y., where he teaches at Vassar College. “I began to speculate that people who are marginalized tend to (seek out) isolated places.”
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His home state — a mitten-shaped peninsula — and its remote, less-populated northern reaches specifically, are the kind of places where the emotionally and physically wounded would end up, he theorized. (If you don’t know the state well, it won’t hurt to have a map at hand.)
That extra room to roam — not just the expanses of Michigan but the greater page count of a novel — works to Means’s benefit.
“It’s a more forgiving thing,” the author said contrasting the differences between tackling a novel and writing a short story. “You can linger, let the characters speak. ... You can be playful.”
But at the end of the day, a novel, he said, “is fundamentally different. A short story is a fragment of a much bigger narrative.” Both, though, are hard work.
No matter what the word count, however, Means wields excellent command of his craft. In “Hystopia,” one character “escapes off into a fury of social nonstructure.” Another, while stoned, can hear “the sound of sunrise striking the bare bones of Big Rapids.”
He knows how to set a somber mood — a dog lies “in the shadows, draped in chains.” “Another rotting porch in a state of rotting porches,” his protagonist observes.
And funny — “I’m the kind of man who doesn’t know how to respond to a woman’s deeper silences, at least in the car, he thought.”
Make no mistake: “Hystopia” is a rewarding yet complex work, with its core novel bookended by faux-author’s and editor’s notes, populated with parallel couples and real and fictional events.
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What these characters mostly want, though, Means noted, is to recapture their memories — whether about themselves or, as Means hinted in our more-recent interview, about America as a country and its lost wars in Southeast Asia and Iraq.
He cited the influence in his novel of the work of Dr. Jonathan Shay, a clinical psychiatrist who treated Vietnam vets and who has written about the effects of wars on those soldiers — real and mythical — who fought in them.
“Without knowing it, they’re searching for ways to tell their story,” Means said. “They really do want to know. It’s better to know your story than not to know.”