By David Means

Faber and Faber. 164 pp. $23

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Reviewed by David L. Ulin

If you're looking for a key to

The Spot

, David Means' fourth collection of short fiction, you need go no further than the title story. In it, Means gives us a looping narrative, or a series of overlapping story lines, at the center of which is a gaping emptiness. It's too matter-of-fact to be despair. Hope, when it exists at all, is an illusion, a bit of wish fulfillment or maybe just a trick of the light.

"When you see that newborn light, take a long look before it fades when your eyes adjust," a lapsed preacher named Shank tells a teenage girl, just before he accidentally drowns her in a botched river baptism. She is not the only teenage girl he drowns here, although in each case, there is an offhand quality to the action.

"You only get a glimpse before it goes away," Shank continues, "and then you have to rely on memory, and if your memory isn't strong you'll lose your grip on salvation." The same might be said of all the characters in these 13 stories, who exist not just on the fringes of society, but on the fringes of the recognizable, the fringes of even their own tangential lives.

The idea of blown chances, of lost opportunities, looms large throughout The Spot, although these are opportunities of a particularly inopportune sort.

In "The Botch," a bank robbery turns all the more disastrous when a customer, identified only as the "Old Order Mennonite," refuses to play along. "He held the look of a man who was obligated to only one commander," Means observes. "Nebraska" tells the story of a wealthy girl playing at revolution (it's the aftermath of the 1960s), who leaves her two accomplices in a parking lot after an armored-car heist goes awry.

As with many of these stories, Means begins this one in the middle, with the girl huddled beneath a table in a safe house, "dazed and alone, tormented by fear and loneliness, lost to time (it seems), most certainly to be forgotten." We don't yet know who she is or what has happened, just that something has gone wrong.

Such a strategy also marked Means' 2000 collection Assorted Fire Events, in which past and present (but almost never future) do their own strange dance within us, and time is less about memory than it is about loss. To the girl in "Nebraska," that means her childhood on Park Avenue, when she used to watch "the evening traffic," swept up in "the sad elegance of the light, near nightfall in winter. The blueness of the vista, the glory in those lights."

If this seems nostalgic, Means is writing with a harsher vision, and as things progress, we confront the carelessness of the girl and her coconspirators, "foolish rich kids" enraptured by "the spirit of Bonnie and Clyde - not the actual historical characters, who seemed messy and dirty, not to mention dead, but the ones portrayed by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the movie . . . eternally laughing and skipping their way through bank robberies and gas station holdups until they were devoured again and again by their love for each other and by the fate - a hail of bullets - that was waiting for them along that road in Louisiana."

For Means, part of the intent is to map this divide between illusion and reality, between how we see ourselves and who we are. In "A River in Egypt," a father of a young boy who may or may not have cystic fibrosis plies his son with toys during a hospital sweat test, pretending they are new when both know otherwise.

On the surface, the story's title recycles a bad pun (denial is a river in Egypt), but read more deeply and it begins to echo with the force of revelation, highlighting the moment when the mundane blurs into the tragic, when everything the man is trying to hide from - not just the potential for devastating news, but more tellingly, the uneasiness between him and his child - can no longer be set aside.

"As he drove," Means writes of this father, "he began to cry, openly and with stifled guffaws, the way a man must cry when he is faced with the future, any future, a good one or a bad one, and after he has sat alone in a room with his child, waiting for sweat to collect so that he may know something about what is to come."

There's something relentless about a sensibility in which "the future, any future" provokes a crying jag, in which tears are the only reaction to the world. Yet it also feels right, essential - not just for these characters, but for all of us.

What can we know, Means is asking, except that, whether because of childhood illness or an act so thoughtless as to be unintended, loss is our inevitable due? Seen in those terms, there is no larger meaning, no orderly progression, no pattern by which the past leads into the present, which is why his writing holds time in such loose regard.

"There were - any policeman could tell you - those who were preordained to fiery deaths," Means writes in "The Gulch," a story about three high school boys who murder a fourth by crucifying him, "those most certain to be found in a ditch outside of town, those whose future lay out there like a bear trap, ready to snap shut when the right amount of pressure was applied in just the right spot."

That's a hard truth, but it seems to me entirely accurate, a recognition of futility from which Means does not avert his gaze.