"The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934" by David Means Originally published in the October 25, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
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.