“Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother”
by David Means
from the May 1, 2017 issue of The New Yorker.

It has been nearly six years since David Means last had a piece of fiction published in The New Yorker. That was “El Moro,” published back in August 2011. Looking back on our post for that piece (here), I see that I myself never did get what Means was going for (and it looks like several commenters had similar issues). I don’t remember the story at all. However, I do remember the two other short stories we’ve covered on this site, “The Knocking” which I didn’t care for at the time but which I don’t mind now (see here), and “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934” which I did like (see here).

As a final bit of trivia, last year Means’ novel Hystopia was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize (Lee reviewed it here).

The conversations on these New Yorker posts have been very enjoyable, so thanks to all who participate, lending their insight and energy in invigorating yet kind comments. I look forward to more with this story!

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By |2017-06-16T22:38:40-04:00April 24th, 2017|Categories: David Means, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. David April 25, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    I had not read anything by David Means before this story (pair of stories? pair of … ruminations?), but I was very impressed with his writing. He writes very beautifully descriptive passages and interesting, thoughtful reflections at the same time. There is a strong poetic quality to his writing here, most obviously reflected in the repetition of the phrase “It’s not just…” throughout the second part. The two parts of this work fit together nicely as companion observations. Describing them as “ruminations” as he does in the title seems apt. I found this piece powerful and moving. Just a joy to read.
    .
    Since I had not read his work before, I did a little research on him afterward. I read “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934”, his story from The New Yorker in 2010, which I also liked. I found a piece in The Paris Review called “Why David Means is Not a Novelist” also from 2010, before he considered writing Hystopia, where he talks about the difference between the two forms and how he identifies as a short story writer. That was quite interesting as well, especially given his recent success as a novelist. I am quite curious now to check out some of his other short fiction and then maybe his novel after that.
    .
    I must admit I was somewhat relieved to enjoy this week’s New Yorker fiction. So far in 2017 I have only really enjoyed their selection once, and that was the almost century old piece by F. Scott Fitzgerald! In 2016 I had been fairly enthusiastic about one out of every three weeks, so I was worried I was turning into a curmudgeon. I have been continuing to find authors that are new to me to enjoy (most recently finishing my second short book by Cesar Aira and first collection of stories by Sigismund Krizhizhanovsky – both authors who were recommended to me by other posts on this blog), but The New Yorker was beginning to become a bit of a chore to read. Let’s hope that this is a turning point and they get back to more good stuff, even if it is only 1 in 3. I mean, going 1 in 3 for a career gets a baseball player to the Hall of Fame, so if that’s what The New Yorker gives us I’ll take it.

  2. Trevor Berrett April 25, 2017 at 3:26 pm

    Thanks for telling us about your journey through Means, David.

    I’m also thrilled to hear that you have enjoyed Aira and Krzhizhanovsky! I agree that it can be hard to keep up with The New Yorker when there’s so much else that delivers more consistently. I have obviously taken another sabbatical from weekly reading, but I hold out hope that I can get back into it, if for no other reason than for the enjoyment of engaging with you all!

  3. Sean H April 25, 2017 at 11:38 pm

    My journey was more of a slog. This one just felt super-academic and contrived. I’ve never really been wow’ed by Means’s stuff and while there’s always some subjectivity bias, I can’t say I know of any real devotees in my group of friends (whose taste in writers often differs quite greatly from my own). The diptych approach – meh. The two different POVs – standard and predictable. There’s imbrication and then there’s prose that reads like an impacted colon; this piece is more the latter. It just reads as rather overstuffed and directionless, a rambling attempt at some sort of brainy post-Knausgard/Ferrante construction that instead falls flat, becoming simultaneously simplistic and overwrought, doing nothing so much as offering a literalist incarnation of the piece’s title. Homelessness is a potentially interesting topic (be it in the best seller section with Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle or in a long literary tradition that includes sources as variant as Bukowski, Hamsun and Dickens) and ruminations can come to life in vivid and fascinating ways (the non-fiction of Norman Mailer, the interviews of Vladimir Nabokov, the pop theorizing of Jane Smiley, Conor Oberst’s most recent album) but the litanic language and self-serious pose here leave me cold and wanting.

  4. Dennis Lang April 28, 2017 at 10:37 am

    Sean H–You are the greatest! I can’t help myself but every time I read one of your comments I see that scene in “Annie Hall”. Remember the one? Alvy and Annie are waiting in the lobby of a movie theater (probably to see the “Sorrow and the Pity”) and in the crowd they overhear a self-described prof of Media and Culture pontificating on Marshall McCluen. Alvy, indignant at the fellow’s blustering: “What, I’d give for a sock with horse manure in it.” At which point Marshall himself steps in to tell the guy “You know nothing of my work!” (Where is David Means when we need him!?)
    Personally, I’m not smart enough to know if anything you’ve written here makes sense–but it sounds fabulous!!!
    Keep it up!

  5. Max A. April 29, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    Yo.

    I don’t know how to do this and I feel like that guy who has been attending AA meetings for months and then decide to get up and speak.

    Actually I feel like an étudiant libre, present without paying and not allowed to take part in evaluations – the gradeless bum.

    Yeah.

    I have been coming here for months now. Mostly because I read the NYer’s fiction every week and I often raise an eyebrow. As in stupefaction, what the fuck, is this what’s considered literature these days? So I googled my way to your little group. Quite enjoyed the weather and stayed. Mute.

    /ends greetings and presentation.

    I am rather on the same wavelengths as Sean H. That nouveau roman bad breath of punctuation irks me. The repetition bores me. And I am always suspicious of LitProfs paragliding to the plebs, stroll around pain like some do on Club Med beaches and then jets away to some highbrow LitFigure to sublime through quotation this newly acquired elevation through someonelse’s suffering. That last part about the pianist was just as dishonest as a writer can get.

    I assume I am getting across as a terrible person.

    Please all know that I thoroughly respect and enjoy your comments every week. Especially if they end up making me change my mind.

    English being my second language, I welcome corrections and insults.

  6. Dennis Lang April 30, 2017 at 10:49 am

    I finally read this story so still riding the adrenalin of it, and hardly capable (nor do I have the aptitude) of presuming an objective “literary analysis” in the spirit of other contributors.
    Only, painful, gripping evocation of ruin and desolation, lives incarcerated, lives spent. The relentless drive of the very long, vivid, lyrical sentences grabbing hold and refusing to let go.
    One of those distinctive narratives in a voice of sympathetic awareness that resonates for some time after reading it.
    Unnerving and memorable.

  7. Eric April 30, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    Well, I tried. The 541-word sentence that constitutes the entire fourth paragraph defeated me, though, and after three attempts I’ve given up. Homelessness is a pretty timeless topic, however, and touches on a lot of pretty universal themes, if I’ve got the free time maybe it’ll be worthwhile to give it another go.

    Perhaps the most famous homeless person here in the Bay Area died last month, inspiring a lot of good and thoughtful remembrances in the local media. I wonder if a long journalistic piece on that guy would have been just as profound, and more readable, compared to this.

  8. William May 1, 2017 at 8:33 pm

    Very nice story. Good circular structure. Part 1 starts with an external societal view of a homeless man whom we can assume is the writer’s mentally ill/substance addicted brother — or someone like him. The character is depersonalized, as homeless people are to us. Then in part 2 the story moves to a more personal and more detailed viewpoint of this one person and the relationship between the brothers. At the end of part 2, the patients/inmates are released through the deinstitutionalization initiative and return to the street, as we saw in part 1.

    Lots of emotionally fraught material here. Though, as in Akhil Sharma’s story, “You Are Happy?”, the emotion is implied in the situations. The author depends on our empathy to make the connection.

    One of the things I liked about this story was the tension between optimism and the sense that the scenes were just a playing out of a predetermined script that wasn’t destined to end happily for anyone. Hope vs. realism.

    I also liked the repetitive use of the mantra, “It’s not just that . . .” to catalogue the setbacks the author’s brother (and the author) had to endure. It’s a technique taught in writing classes, like making lists. Here it is used effectively to build up to the most important part of the story, the last graf, in which the author writes: “”No, it’s the fact that he never had a chance to fly . . .” and the following losses that the ill brother suffered. Culminating in the final one — “expressions of discontent never solve the riddle of the world, or bring the banality of sequential reality to a location of deeper grace.”

    Making this the quintessential anti-epiphany story.

  9. David May 4, 2017 at 8:43 am

    Just a brief update here: In the last week I have read this story a couple more times and each time I love it even more. Some of the pattern of the construction of the two ruminations (not just the length of the sentences, but including that) reminded me of Faulkner. I find it interesting that the entire second rumination could be presented as a single long sentence, since each sentence is part of a list of things “it’s not just…” and ends with “it’s that…”. In fact, viewed as a single sentence, it is actually a sentence fragment. More than 2000 words and still not even a complete sentence!
    .
    I mentioned above that I also read his “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934” from 2010. I did a google search and found that in 2015 Thomas McGuane and Deborah Treisman recorded a conversation about the story as a part of a New Yorker series where they ask authors to choose stories from the archives they want to read and discuss. I greatly enjoyed that conversation and recommend it to anyone who read and liked “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934”. I also quite liked that it was McGuane who picked the story, as I very much enjoyed his story, “Papaya” from The New Yorker last August and was inspired by reading that to check out more of his writing.
    .
    I feel like I could re-read “Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother”every day and still enjoy it, but I just got a copy of The Spot, David Means 2010 book of short stories. I am sure, however, I will come back to this one again and again.

  10. William May 5, 2017 at 1:55 pm

    David —

    Thanks for pointing us to Means’ story “Tree Line”. It’s nicely written.

  11. Greg May 6, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    Thank you William and David for opening up so much more for me in this story. I can now fully see what the author was trying to do!

    Also, I think it’s important to note that Means was friends with David Foster Wallace…..thus, I believe it’s safe to assume Means was passing on his first-hand emotions in dealing with a mentally ill intimate.

  12. William May 7, 2017 at 11:37 am

    Greg —

    And thanks to you for mentioning the friendship between Means and DFW. I didn’t know that.

  13. Jan Guerin May 10, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    I loved the stream of consciousness and the deep sense of sadness the narrator feels. Yes, addiction and homelessness are confounding and stubborn issues, but when those isssues take root in someone you love… well then it is so very unique and different. What made this story stand out for me was his deep sense that he had dodged that particular genetic bullet and while his life was calmer, it certainly hurt just as much. It was excellent.

  14. Greg May 11, 2017 at 11:51 pm

    Thanks Jan for explaining why this story is very touching!

    My favourite part of your post was this:

    “Yes, addiction and homelessness are confounding and stubborn issues, but when those isssues take root in someone you love… well then it is so very unique and different.”

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