There are two kinds of people in America. The problem is, we can't figure out what those are. Maoists and Tea Baggers? PC lovers and Apple devotees? Letterman fans and Leno watchers? While the twoness of our national family is undeniable, the dividing line has proved quite impossible to fix.
Two new story collections provide yet another opportunity to draw a line in the sand, this time between adjacent, yet rarely overlapping, traditions of American storytelling: on one side, the old blood and earth of regional modernism, that evergreen ancestry winding from Cormac McCarthy back to Ken Kesey, William Faulkner, and Sherwood Anderson, among others, that's known for its projection of biblical moods and images onto the American landscape and of vengeful passions into the citizenry who live there. On the other side, the jauntier tradition of postwar metafiction, an ironic mode exemplified by the likes of Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, George Saunders, and, most recently, the McSweeney's mafia, shape-shifting pop cultists all. Between these poles—the homebound regionalist and the touristic pop artist—many an author has felt compelled to choose an allegiance.
David Means, the author of three highly regarded story collections, is more the regionalist here, albeit one of a highly sophisticated, formally aggressive order. In long, lyric sentences, thick with nested clauses and parallel constructions, adding up to some enormous paragraphs, he depicts a mythic Rust Belt populated by a menacing subculture of drifters, bank robbers, terrorists, and pimps, many of whom would not be far out of place on the pages of regionalist heroes of the southern-gothic variety.
Tellingly, his lacerating new collection, The Spot, opens and closes at seedy hobo campsites. In between, we visit a variety of bleak locales—hotel parking lots, roadside campgrounds, littered margins of town—and bear witness to a wide range of horrible acts. We see two men burying a father on a beach; we see a drowning by baptism; we see infidelity and many other sins. The book really finds its harrowing tone, though, in a particularly lurid couple of tales featuring crucifixions. In "Oklahoma," a drifter with aspirations to directing films tortures an old farmer, then blows up a farmhouse, and finally, en route from the crime, hatches a plan to crucify the farmer's mentally disabled granddaughter, who's fallen under his sway. "Crucifixion is the top crime, man," he tells his accomplice and lover, heading down the dark highway. "You nail the palms, you crown the head with thorns, and let slow, natural death take over. The guy up there is high as hell on opiates. Doesn't feel a thing." The story ends before the deed has been done, but judging from the atmosphere of doom permeating most of Means's tales, one guesses it won't be long coming. In the next story, "The Gulch," told through the eyes of a bewildered community, a group of teenagers has already crucified a kid on the outskirts of town for reasons either mystical or banal, or possibly both.
Flannery O'Connor, proud gothic regionalist, famously didn't approve of writing that "looks funny on the page," and some of Means's po-mo fragmentations might have irked her—his paragraphs float in white space, and his point of view fearlessly and abruptly shifts—but she would be hard-pressed to deny her maternity when reading a story like "The Botch." The tale is a riff (one speculates) on "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and in particular on the villain of O'Connor's story, the Misfit, who bestows on a self-centered old woman a final, clarifying grace in the panic of her violent death. Means's Misfit-like criminal fantasizes about terrorizing a bystander at a coming bank heist. "The idea being," he thinks, "that her life, seeing that gun, hearing the shouts, for a startling moment will become strangely meaningful." As per their wont, though, things don't go quite as planned, and while standing lookout our narrator becomes distracted by the swaying hips of a passing housewife and, thus rattled, engages in a bloody massacre of innocents. The criminals walk away from the scene unpunished, but soon our villain is plotting his return to town, hoping to exact revenge on the young mother for her crimes of ignorance.
There are dark currents in the fiction of Doug Dorst, too, though generally the stories in his affable first collection, The Surf Guru, stick to warmer, less bloody waters. Following quick on the heels of his debut novel, Alive in Necropolis (2008)—a juicy, wide-ranging affair, following a Marlowe-ish existential detective into the realms of the supernatural—this new outing veers into more metafictional terrain, employing a broad range of narrative techniques, genre conventions, and arch ventriloquisms, seemingly without care for unity of tone. In "Dinaburg's Cake," a neurotic suburban baker schemes to land a major wedding job while proactively ignoring the emotional distress of her teenage daughter. In "The Surf Guru"—a story rendered in cute, individually titled paragraphs—the titular hero manages his brand of surf-related products while observing a clichéd beach romance unfurling below his estate. In "Astronauts," a pill-popping young woman plots her escape from dead-end life in northern California.
The book also makes major forays into far-flung historical milieus, often filtered through a structural gimmick of some kind. In one story, a misanthropic botanist insults his colleagues in short, bilious diary entries; in another, an Impressionist-era French doctor draws inspiration from van Gogh and other painters of the day in brief, dated sections; in another, an angry nineteenth-century Mexican fruit seller rails against the rich brothel owner who employs his lovely daughter in the days leading up to a surreal village festival. In all of Dorst's historical pieces, though, the exotic locations are quickly recognizable as back-lot fabrications, the lighting artificial, the voices winking put-ons that lapse easily into modern cant.
Here, for instance, is the fruit seller, Manolo de los Pozos of Ciudad San Humberto, as he pays a visit to his son, a madman who lives in a tree:
I am dry-throated and dripping with sweat when I get to Rubén's tree. My pulse drums in my ears. I sit on a flat mossy rock and stare up into the branches, but I can see no shadow, hear no movement. The only sound is the shrill cry of a chachalaca defending its nest. I wait, trying to think of what to say. It is difficult. I feel it has been years since I have said the right thing to anyone—not even to the saint, in my prayers. Finally, this comes out: "Rubén, I do not speak to you as your father but as a man. I am sorry for all I have done and all I have failed to do."
Hear how the mock-formal diction wavers in that moment of reflection? "Years since I have said the right thing to anyone." That's not a proud Mexican peasant seeking forgiveness, but modern therapeutic blabber, a confession from reality TV. Dorst's stories are full of these little pentimenti, the now peeking through the then, and they're part of the pleasure of the form, along with funny words like chachalaca. The reader is expected to recognize the ironic distance being struck and to feel welcomed into the smart, knowing community. If some of the emotion expressed is a little canned, some of the quirks a little considered, that's a feature of the metagenre itself, possibly even of modern society in general. This is not a literature of crucifixion, after all. There might be a hanging in the Mexican village, and the devouring of the corpse by hyenas, but we rest assured the action will come off more amusing than not.
If Dorst's stories lack a certain killer instinct, one could also say Means's violent lyricism has its own limitations. The stories of The Spot exhibit almost no interest in the colloquial junk of contemporary American life, for instance, and the dialogue is utterly dislocated from the American vernacular. When a character speaks, the voice of Faulkner or Melville comes out, which means that whenever the melodrama isn't solidly fixed to the extremities of spiritual crime, the tone can verge on the florid.
Between these two talented authors, Means and Dorst, a genuine difference of vision persists. On the one hand, there's a desire to tap the old, weird folkways of America, to run with the bandits, bums, hustlers, and con men, to keep alive the prophetic voice of our dark soil. On the other, a desire to catch the flash and beep of contemporaneity, to hear how people really talk, to make sense of our most current signs, even if those signs are best recognized in other countries and in centuries past. Can these visions be reconciled? Can the old and the new somehow be fused? Maybe. And if not, America will just have to remain as she always was, that is, thoroughly, splendidly, split in twain.
Jon Raymond is the author of The Half-Life (2004), a novel, and Livability (2008; both Bloomsbury), a collection of short stories. His screenwriting includes Mildred Pierce, a forthcoming miniseries for HBO.