David Means: “El Morro”

08/24/2011 § Leave a comment

Let’s play a game I like to call, “What the f**k is this story about?”

  1. “You see, some goddess or something lived in this lake, back when it was freshwater, and then she got tired of the place and fled north and took most of the water,” begins the story, with part of a rambling mythological monologue from Lenny, who as it turns out has four main topics of conversation: drugs, the native culture of California (like the Zuni Pueblo, identified here as the author’s “true passion”), birds, and finally, the stories that he has determined belong to other people. That is, he likes to fill in the blanks about people. At this point, the story is a stoner’s stream-of-consciousness, and the run-on sentences are made even more complex by a page-long parenthetical, in which the girl who is accompanying Lenny, trying to tune him out, thinks back to one of her fellow homeless friends’ stories about “groping fingers, sexual organs against the thigh, confusion in dimly lit parking garages.” This in turn gives way to a parable the girl tells about a dog and horse who are having an argument about “meat and grass.”
  2. Next, as they drive north from Tuscon “through the eggplant predawn light,” the story suggests something whimsical about life being “pushed into the pinhole of the moment,” and in that aspect, the story is now about the history of one of the biggest copper mines in North America, then about a female employee on the mountain who holds up a stop sign on behalf of the cleanup crews sweeping the road ahead (who got a knife scar from her husband, now in jail), and then something that speculates about how people wind up working in the mine — sucked into a life they didn’t expect by momentum and history and obligation. If the story was about losing oneself, is it now about finding oneself?
  3. Now the Stop Sign Lady and Lenny are a couple, and the girl spends a great deal of time sleeping in the backseat, imagining that she’s on a magic carpet. There’s another story related, now, about the Lady’s brother, who has quit the mine in hopes of becoming an actor, and Lenny crushes that hope by telling her that the brother is only going to wind up “on the streets along with the rest of them” and that if he’s unlucky, he’ll die “in front of La Brea Tar Pits, in front of a tourist from Wisconsin,” which is yet another incredibly specific detail in an incredibly vague ramble of story. If the story was about finding oneself, the suggestion now seems to be that one accomplishes this through struggle.
  4. Our passive “hero,” the backseat girl, is abandoned in a state park, atop an immense rock formation that some claim must be the work of the Devil, while others assert that it must be carved from the hand of God. Either way, a mere human shouldn’t bother trying to leave their own mark on the world — and if they do, they’ll be arrested by the park ranger, which is exactly what happens. Except that Russell’s a nice guy, so he brings her to a social worker instead; he feels sorry for this exhausted woman, or so he tells his wife as they lie there in bed later that night, for “he saw the face of a girl who had lost almost everything, including her ability to speak.”

Is this a story, then, about marks? About some small measure of permanence, of registering an impact, long after you’ve lost everything? If so, it’s fairly bleak, ending with the ranger’s observation that “a few years of wind and rain will blow it away like all the others.” It’s hard to tell, given that Means is writing from such an obtuse series of perspectives, none of which are really those of the young, potentially traumatized girl. The title, which translates roughly to “The Promontory” doesn’t really help: nothing really “juts” out in this story — in fact, the greatest flaw here is that so much is going on, all treated with roughly the same amount of weight, that nothing actually happens, not really. There’s the illusion of a story, in that people say things, but talk, as they say, is cheap, and this is a cheap story that shirks the responsibility of making us care in the slightest. I’ll say it again: “What the fuck?”

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