David Means – “El Morro” in The New Yorker 8/29/11

A typo carved in stone at El Morro

Kimberly told one dervish story after another that afternoon in Griffith Park, reciting them until they both drifted asleep, only to awaken, later, to bright sun and blue sky and the hard clomp of hooves. Above them, on a string of horses led by a guide, was a group of Japanese tourists taking snapshots of a vista that included Hollywood buried in a bowl of haze, the desert landscape, and two homeless girls, pale and gaunt, huddled on a sheet of cardboard.

I was looking forward to this, since I enjoyed David Means’ “The Junction” from PEN/O.Henry 2011 so much – the storytelling hoboes, cherry pie, and home. But I read Zin’s post about “The Junction”: “I really struggled to get into this story! I had to restart four times! I actually gave up at one point…. this one that has a first paragraph six pages long… and who is speaking, there is an “I” and “he” and “we” and who is who, what the hell is going on here…” and I think, oh, yeah, that one was like that, wasn’t it? How quickly we forget! Because it was worth it, in the end.

And this story was like that, too. The first sentence is almost 100 words, longer than some micros. The POV is constantly shifting. There’s a parenthetical (containing a memory of a friend who told a story about a dervish that told a story – the end is quoted above) that goes on for about a column and a half, three or four paragraphs. And there’s a complete shift of POV at the end. Huh?

But, like “The Junction,” it drew me in.

The main character is a runaway teenage girl whose name we never learn. Meth-head Lenny picked her up a couple of days ago, and now they’re driving all over the western United States, it seems. He talks non-stop. She does everything she can not to listen. He has four topics: drugs, Native American culture, birds, and the story he made up for her, because she only told him her father kicked her off the farm back home in Illinois and he’s not interested in knowing more facts, he wants to make up his own version of her story. They encounter a woman directing traffic; he makes up a story about her and her brothers, and she ends up in the front seat and the girl moves to the back. They go to El Morro, a natural monument of sandstone where all manner of travellers have carved their names for centuries until the Park Service protected it. Lenny abandons the girl there, and Russell, the guard at the visitor center, takes her to some kind of halfway house. Then he tells his wife all about it that night.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Add to that the voice of a meth addict relating some of it, a mute runaway thinking the rest, all the technical tricks mentioned above, and why bother? Because it’s about story-telling. Everyone has to tell their story. Stories embedded in stories. Dervish stories. Lenny robbing the girl of her story and making one up for her. Russell telling his good-deed story to his wife. El Morro, a monument to stories – The National Park Service website tells us: “Ancestral Puebloans and Spanish and American travelers carved over 2,000 signatures, dates, messages, and petroglyphs for hundreds of years” (ouch to the wording). And, in a twist of fate that will amuse copy editors everywhere: “The first English inscription at El Morro, carved into the rock by Lt. J. H. Simpson and R. H. Kern in 1849, has a spelling error: “inscriptions” was spelled “insciptions” with the “r” inserted afterwards.”

I’m not beginning to understand this story; it’s way too complex for me. The number 4 keeps coming up. There are four characters. Lenny has four topics. Russell has four cameras by which he views the park. I’m not sure what the significance of the number 4 is – maybe just coincidence. Lenny takes the girl and tells her to shut up (he steals her voice, doesn’t let her tell her story, he will make up her story for himself) while Russell possibly starts her on the path to recovering her voice. There’s something godlike about Russell: seeing all through his four cameras, understanding the girl, rescuing her, protecting the mark she made on El Morro. Something redemptive, restorative. I’m just groping in the dark here. Still, like “The Junction,” it worked for me. And I was interested in the decision to shift POVs at the end, so someone else could tell what now became his story.

David Means loves stories. Storytelling was at the heart of “The Junction” as well. In an interview with The Paris Review, he explains why he writes stories, not novels, and ends with: “And it’s not fear of bad reviews, or not making something that isn’t coherent or good that holds me back, but rather a fear of wasting time—and in doing so not being able to tell the stories that want to be told. If a story wants to be told and you don’t tell it, you’d better stand back because something’s going to explode.”

I’ll listen to his stories. Even if they are over my head.

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