There is darkness and brutality aplenty, especially in “The Terminal Artist”, about a serial-killer nurse, and the titular story in which a man predicts his own murder. The would-be victim is vain (“He worked tirelessly for justice,” he imagines funeral mourners saying) and possibly paranoid... The closing story, “Two Ruminations on a Homeless Brother”, again sees Means juxtaposing two narratives. The first half of the story concerns a homeless man who walks through town while passers-by imagine how he reached this point and imagine themselves in his position. The story’s second half also examines the narrative impulse, as the writer-narrator visits his brother, an addict, in hospital. “Part of the tragedy of the situation,” the narrator thinks, “was the loss of story inherent in the hospital walls.” Later, he leaves knowing “it all had to be taken and turned into a story of some kind”. It is the most affecting story here and a unifying point on which to end the collection. It shows that no matter what his characters suffer, Means believes in the power of stories to rescue and redeem people.
With help from a deeply sly sense of humour and the beautifully rendered landscapes that sometimes seem to be the only genuinely no-bullshit presences in the story, he always produces a burst of emotional colour, accompanied by a bittersweet warmth we can all recognise. It’s the literary equivalent, perhaps, of the yeasty fug of humanity he invites us into: the fights, funerals and extramarital sex; the declining pain of one or another kind of injury, physical or psychic, sustained or handed out. These lives are framed by love, or “what love became when it hardened into history”.
Through three story collections and a Booker-longlisted novel, Means has written stories from the fringes, about addiction, mental health, violence, love, hardship, parenthood, being a brother, obsession… Instructions For A Funeral – his fourth collection – continues in this vein, Means’ forensic awareness working in tandem with a vernacular at once contemporary and folk... Means’ work has always explored how stories are perpetuated, and in Instructions his characters continue to craft and recraft their stories for others, holding their memories up and turning them in the light to better understand or relate them... Instructions could be read as a sequence of moments. With exquisite control and detail, Means pulls up from the moment of occurrence, and twists it, until you are seeing that moment from a vantage point decades into the future, or seeing its formation in decades past.