Past Imperfect

How does violence stop time? How does trauma warp our experience of the world, stretch one minute into years, or turn several months into a matter of seconds? David Means grapples with these questions at the core of each story in his collection Instructions for a Funeral: spanning the Hudson Valley to the Rust Belt to California, from the 1950s to the modern day, Means traces the inciting instances and the ripple effects of violence, addiction, and generational trauma.

We open with a short introduction titled “Confessions,” in which the writer reflects on his own process in crafting his works, split up into two sections fittingly titled “Violence” and “Loss.” What follows is the first full story, “Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950,” recounting a barfight between two young men, Sutter and Bergara. The story opens with their fight breaking out, before we promptly delve into the inner worlds and future fates of the two men. We flash forward to a few weeks in the future, where Bergara’s brother is killed in the Korean War. Bergara then catches sight of a young woman, Sarah Breeland, standing among the crowd of people watching the fight in the present day. We flash forward now years into the future, wherein Sarah and Bergara are married, and Bergara is relaxing in the yard after a long day of work while watching Sarah hang laundry outside their home in Arizona. Meanwhile, in the present-tense of the fight, between Sutter and Bergara’s jabs, the narrator remarks:

Time lives retrospectively inside a fight. It doesn’t slow down. It tightens so that one move locates a relation to the moves before it. The point of a fight like this was to reverse the flow of time, to reduce everything to an effect and cause, and in doing so to erase the everyday tedium of time.

This sentiment is one that marks “Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950” as the overture of the entire collection. In these sentences, everyday tedium and violent releases are set in direct opposition to one another. So, too, in the stories that follow, the acts of raising children, working office jobs, and purchasing real estate are pitted against those of committing murder, battling cancer, and weathering opioid addiction — at times, within the same story. The quotidian acts of gradually raising a family or building a home are pitted against the destructive acts of achieving instant bodily gratification by any means necessary. Patience is pitted against transcendence. Placid domesticity is pitted against blind rage.

Means shows us, then, that trauma is inexplicably linked to time. These acts that deliberately disrupt the flow of time in order to transcend tedium — violent fist fights, heavy drug use, and gaining wealth through organized crime — are often both reactions to past traumas as well as the roots of future traumas. This is reflective of the nonlinear nature of healing itself: there is no rigid, predictable timeline by which one can expect to fully heal from trauma. One of the most salient and frustrating characteristics of trauma is its chaotic ebb and flow; how it can bubble up years after the fact and feel as fresh as the moment it happened.

If there is a common thread running through these stories besides that of their nonlinear engagement with trauma, it is their steadfast obsession with manhood. It is difficult to determine whether this laser-focus into the minds and hearts of men provides the collection with depth or myopia — perhaps both. Means certainly does have some women characters, though they feel like dubious afterthoughts in each form that they take: complicit partners, concerned wives, salacious extra-marital sexual interests or, at best, a long-deceased old friend. But above all, they are silent. This theme renders the following excerpt, from the story “El Morro,” especially bizarre. At this point in the story, a nameless character referred to only as “the lady” is accompanying a group of men on a road trip through the southwest, and she recounts her husband threatening her with a gun as she attempts to run off on the trip:

He came back one night and stood out on the lawn shouting. He told me to get out there. He told me to be a man, and I told him, I’m a woman, and he said that didn’t matter, he was going to treat me like a man.

This implies that being “treated like a man” in this context means being subjected to violence, but could we not also read being “treated like a man” within the logic of this story as, merely, being paid attention to, or given a line of dialogue? Surely it is trite to determine the significance of a character based only on her name and dialogue — or lack thereof — but it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming, raw, sexually-charged male gaze that permeates the entire collection. Though I am not one to shy away from work that challenges me or makes me uncomfortable, I can’t help but wonder if Means is providing a critical commentary on a hyper-masculine, repressive culture that so often breeds violence, or if he faithfully reproducing it.

One could also argue that these particular traumas — crime, violence, and drug addiction — disproportionately effect low-income communities, communities that are more likely to be culturally entrenched in traditional gender roles and not too concerned with third-wave feminism. But, what then, is there to say about the particular traumas of women from these communities? Or the traumas of Black people living in these predominately white working-class communities? Or, at least, trauma stemming from wounds that are not so intensely linked to the tropes of white masculinity? Since Means has certainly already found his niche, that may well be a question for another writer to answer.

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lucy faye rosenthal

lucy faye rosenthal

lover, fighter, good driver. literary criticism hatched at the Bennington Writing Seminars