David Means knows how to write, there is no doubt about that. He writes lyric sentences that flow with beautiful descriptions of the land and seedy descriptions of lives on the margin. The language is a kind of folksy lyricism, that brand of American writing that you can find in writing at least as far back as Shwerwood Anderson and running through short story writers up until this day. It is marked by a descriptive sensitivity to what ever is around one and a narrative precision, not minimalism, but the selection of just the right details, which, in turn, are rendered in a sometimes plain spoken language, but often a metaphorical language of objects that is incapable of expressing ideas in anything other than what is at hand in the physical. The language can work to great effect at times, but applied too often it leads to an infantilization. While Means doesn’t make this mistake, he does create characters who border on this, especially in the Botch. The bigger problem for Means, though, is the mix of these kind of characters with the nihilistic and oft treated themes of drifters, petty criminals, and other losers that populate the book. They are dark outcasts of the American dream, some who’ve never even been close enough to want it, and they all live in a hopeless despair where to live is little more than an animalistic instinct. In other words, the book is full of tired stories, dressed up as new, of people down on their luck with little more point than going on to the next failure. This is not original and descends into the search for the easy fallacy that drunks and bums are some how wiser and will show us an unreconstructed wisdom that is not artificial. If I wanted that, I would dig up some Steinbeck or Kerouac or some other writer from the 30s to the 50s. There are, fortunately, some good stories in the book. The first story, The Knocking, was probably the best of the lot and used his rhythmic skills to describe a man who is driven to despair by the knocking in the apartment above. It felt inventive and wasn’t marked with such futility. Spontaneous Human Combustion was also notable for its way of describing a man’s life, using fragments and suppositions generated during the investigation of his spontaneous combustion. The Actor’s House is also notable for its play on the passage of time in a small town. Despite these strong pieces, I had a hard time finishing the book and had it not been for the first piece, I would not have even bothered to keep searching for what few scraps I found. My return to the American short story has not been successful so far.