David Means: “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934″

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. David Means’ “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934″ was originally published in the October 25, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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Even though I thought it was written with an impressive frenetic energy, I didn’t much like David Means’s “The Knocking” when it appeared earlier this year. It seemed to be more about the energy of the writing, and it didn’t go anywhere. Consequently, I was a bit hesitant when beginning “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934.” However, this short story still has the energetic writing, but it is, somehow, slowed down a bit. It’s a reflective piece, but with an emotional core than reverberates throughout.

For five days, Lee and Barnes have been on a stake out, waiting for Carson, some loose criminal, to do the obvious thing and show up at his uncle’s failed farm. Barnes, the younger, can hardly bear it any longer. Carson is an experienced criminal, used to running from the law. He’s smart enough to know that his uncle’s farm is a trap. And why would he come anyway. So, in a great way, Means combines the tedium and over-thinking of a drawn-out stakeout with the anxiety of waiting for something big that could happen at any moment.

Lee is the older and more experienced. Though he agrees with Barnes, he knows that the mind becomes increasingly fragile the longer the stakeout. Just like the horizon, if stared at too long, can “take over the stakeout,” trying to outguess the criminal is a dangerous distraction.

It’s one of the shorter stories this year, and it is one of the better. I recommend it.

5 thoughts on “David Means: “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934″”

  1. My thoughts above. A short, impressive story.

  2. Ken says:

    I’ve liked all of his stories (including The Knocking and The Blade which was in Harpers). I’d say that virtuosity and energy are the key here and didn’t think the “content” that much stronger than in The Knocking but as with that the sheer propulsive thrust and the masterful shifts in temporality, perspective and the careful description of experience and interiority are all handled with masterful dexterity.

  3. Joe says:

    I have to be a dissenting voice on this one. I found that this story made for rather unpleasant reading. It’s difficult to put my finger on it exactly, but I had the sense that it was overwritten and felt more like an exercise in style than a fully-realized story.

    As an example, I have trouble with sentences like this: “Four years of heists and encounters with law enforcement had given Carson’s men an innate sense that certain probabilities — a stakeout, limited to two or three men — were best dealt with in a swift, heedless manner that included overwhelming firepower brought to bear on weary Bureau men who most likely had been in surveillance mode for days, hiding in the grass or behind trees.”

    If this story had been any longer, I wouldn’t have made it to the end.

  4. I see you felt just like the men in the story, Joe: bleary-eyed and hoping for some ending!

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