Two Nurses, Smoking by David Means

It’s like the first time you hear a Brahms symphony. The “I didn’t know!” feeling. Or the first time you see a great painting, and know, in your mind’s eye, that it is great. I had those experiences as a teenager.

You can still have those discovery experiences when you’re an adult. Like when you see a friend after an interval and are reminded that they are a friend. Or when you discover a new writer (new to you), as in this case.

At the end of this review, I’m going to quote the first line of the first story, which gave me one of those discovery experiences.

Two Nurses Smoking is a new collection by David Means. Ten stories, in varied styles, about Midwestern teenagers, doped up on despair, about river town thirty and forty somethings managing messy/stricken lives, with a guest appearance, a beautiful one, of NYC. New England…the Cape, and the Hudson river valley, that legendary place, also have star turns. Place is important to most readers, as publishers know. In David Means’ stories “place” can be a point of attention, as if it were watching the narrative as a geographical POV.

In “The Red Dot”, a restaurant owner in a river town, the Hudson, is spied by the driving-by narrator, sitting in his closed-up establishment after the town is in shut-up darkness. He’s exhausted from the clean-up from the day. His staff having left hours earlier, he can be seen through the windows with the aid of the few tracking lights that are always left on, drinking Bogart-like at his bar. This is Karl, whom the writer wonderfully describes as “thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane”. Also wonderfully framed, Karl is being discussed by Anna and the narrator. The couple are standing before a window. It’s snowing, “big flakes falling through streetlight”.

Karl’s wife has left him for a guy who designs toothpaste tubes. You have Karl alone at his bar, also being gossiped about by a couple elsewhere at a window looking out at the snow falling in a river town in upstate New York. Place. Gossip. We’ll be having Karl now from the various POV’s that the writer has set up.

The most striking feature of Karl’s wife is her morbid fear of the water. She can’t walk by the riverbank. On a ferry trip she has to be sedated and taken in a wheelchair. But is that really an accurate picture of Karl’s wife? After the breakup, Karl says he’s seen her kayaking on the river. The most shattering thing about a breakup can be the terror of realizing your ignorance. And the most stimulating thing about gossip can be trying to guess what is really true. Means is expert at parsing out all the permutations. The writer loves conditional phrasing: If then, but only if, if then.

I also need to mention the organizational brilliance of the keynote story: Two Nurses, Smoking. “Organizational Brilliance” sounds trite doesn’t it? But what I mean is by many disparate means the story arrives at the ultimate unity, which can only be one thing, tactfully…almost shyly acknowledged, as if the writer felt he could barely get away with it.

I can’t express myself any less obscurely without giving too much away. Since writing this review I’ve moved on my next read, Bliss Montage by Ma Ling. I’ve also noted a related narrative strategy there: a high level of apparent entropy or associative messiness nonetheless leads to an aesthetically unified result, indeed creates that result. Bliss Montage indeed. The two books are good representatives of the art of our time, which privileges assemblage.  And also asymmetry. A story collection, of course, is also an assembled work of art.


Some of David Means’ stories are worth their own book club meeting. But getting back to that promised first line of the first story, it’s a lost dog story. “Clementine, Carmelita, Dog”. These are the two names the same dog has had, depending on who are the “persons” in her life. There’s a magical translation-text feeling as DM coyly points out that the dog’s life-world streaming and the humans’ life-world streaming don’t quite match, so maybe you can’t be certain about what’s being experienced or whether or not something has been lost in translation from dog to human. After all, no dogs are reading this story, so we can’t tell what they would be thinking of it.

The first sentence of the first story.


A middle-aged dachshund with a short-haired, caramel-colored coat scurried along a path, nervously veering from one side to the other, stopping to lower her nose to the ground, to catch traces of human footwear, a whiff of rubber, even a fainter residue of shoe leather, smells that formed a vague pattern of hikers in the past.