Review: Instructions for a Funeral: Stories

In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, David Means described the aspirations that drive his short story writing: "What you hope for," he said, "is that you radiate the past behind the story and the future in front of it. You want to end in a way that makes the reader go back and reread and pushes them forward into eternity or whatever the hell's out there." With subject matter as varied as the terrors of homelessness and mental illness and the demands of parenting, the 14 eclectic stories in Instructions for a Funeral, Means's fifth collection and first since 2010, admirably fulfill that goal.

It's impossible to isolate a single dominant theme or perhaps even a representative story, but the title selection is as good as any for revealing the distinctive pleasures of Means's (Assorted Fire Events) short fiction. In it, the narrator, William Kenner, a real estate developer, in the guise of a meticulously detailed and wickedly funny letter to his lawyer, reveals how his friend Philpot and Sullivan, a New York mobster, swindled him in a real estate deal. Featuring the harrowing description of a mass shooting, two dramatic scenes of rescue and a chilling encounter between Kenner and Sullivan, and the final sentence, "Everything, right now, is safe and cozy," it's a masterly literary juggling act.

Not all of Means's stories are so dramatic. "The Chair" is a stream-of-consciousness account of a stay-at-home father's musings as his son cavorts on a stone wall above the Hudson River, a setting for several other stories in Instructions for a Funeral. Anyone who's ever wrestled with the balance between love and discipline will appreciate the narrator's ambivalence as he futilely warns a five-year-old boy of the consequences of his daredevil antics. Transgression of a different type is the subject of "The Mighty Shannon," where the protagonist of "The Chair" and his wife, Sharon, a Manhattan lawyer, find themselves in a couples therapist's office confronting the aftermath of their mutual affairs.

Means also has an affinity for society's marginal inhabitants. "The Ice Committee" is the poignant story of two homeless men--Kurt, a Vietnam veteran in his mid-50s, and Merle, his much older companion--in frigid Duluth, Minn., as they muse on the vicissitudes of luck while scrounging for a few dollars to buy a scratch-off lottery ticket. "These were the glorious moments between them," Means writes in a tender summing up of the pair's meandering conversation, "when the burdens of their respective regrets seemed to merge and disappear, and it was because of these purifications that they were still together, still hanging on."

Instructions for a Funeral is like the proverbial box of chocolates. Not every story will suit every reader's taste, but there are ample treats here guaranteed to surprise and delight anyone. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: David Means's fifth collection of short stories offers varied glimpses of some of the trials of human life.

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