Review: ‘Two Nurses, Smoking,’ by David Means

TWO NURSES, SMOKING: Stories, by David Means

Midway through the title story of his dazzling new collection, “Two Nurses, Smoking,” David Means suddenly reverses course on the tale you’ve been reading, about two soul-weary health care workers embarking on a tentative romance.

The header “NO” halts your progress, followed by “Wait, before they got to the hotel …” and the story rewinds like an old film strip. Then there’s another “NO.” And another. “Wait, go back behind the trailer,” you read, as the narrative is respooled, reconsidered and put back on course toward a revelation that takes your breath away.

It’s the sort of literary effect — technique intersecting theme to create epiphany — that writers tell their grandchildren about (or at least their grad students), and it’s a good example of why Means is considered a modern master of the art.

“Two Nurses, Smoking” is his sixth collection. Over the years, Means seems, through an increasingly discursive, circular style, to have zeroed in on “story” as both his form and his subject. (Who else would write a story about a writer writing a story about Raymond Carver writing a story about Kurt Cobain, as Means did in his 2019 collection “Instructions for a Funeral”?)

And the 10 pieces here might compose his storiest collection yet, deriving a twitchy, knowing power from their creative transparency.

Consider “Clementine, Carmelita, Dog,” which kicks off the book and presents the world as a middle-aged dachshund might see it. At its tensest moment, the narrator steps out from the curtains and wrestles with how to capture canine consciousness: “I wish I could make words be dog, get into her coat and paws and belly and ears as she ran, slowing down on the main trail, passing the picnic tables, the trash bins, catching now and then the familiar fragrance of home, but also, by this point, her own scent on the asphalt where she had passed a hundred times long ago.”

“Vows” begins in the comic swirl of gossip surrounding an unfaithful couple, then detours into a consideration of narrative pitfalls (“Is it a cliché to make the leap from that moment … to that final night in the hospital?”) before driving to another surprisingly powerful ending.

Three of the stories involve Meg, a 1970s runaway who often appears in Means’s fiction, usually with a lump of trouble named Billy, one of those “freaks who leaned toward bladework, slicing and stabbing. Buck knives in leather holsters, locked in a drifter ethos born in imagined hinterlands.”

In “Are You Experienced?,” the couple drops acid and plots unlikely crimes. Later, in “Lightning Speaks!,” Meg ends up in a hospital where electroshock therapy seems less about therapy than about untangling narrative. These looser stories recall an earlier Means, who braided scenes of stark violence with meaning. In this elegiac book, such transcendent moments usually connect to grief.

Means often names the feeling he’s going for, only to back up and take another run at it from a different perspective. “THE EROS OF GRIEF” reads a header in the wrenching “Stopping Distance,” which mirrors the title story by charting a tenuous relationship between people who meet in a bereavement group.

The final entry, “The Depletion Prompts,” is another showstopper, although if your complaint about modern short stories is their insularity — that they seem written mostly for other writers — a story made up of erstwhile writing prompts that references Nabokov, Chekhov and Welty, and gives a knowing nod to Lorrie Moore, is unlikely to change your mind.

Inside baseball? Sure. But Meg is here too, and, as the narrator who began the book trying to “make words be dog” grapples with how to comprehend his sister’s disappearance (“Write the sad version. … Write into the steel of your rage”), it’s hard to imagine a more apt expression of the human need to tell stories.

Jess Walter is the author, most recently, of “The Angel of Rome and Other Stories.”

TWO NURSES, SMOKING: Stories | By David Means | 205 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $26