[BOOK REVIEW] In Two Nurses, Smoking: Stories, Means touches the heart

David Means’ newest short story collection, Two Nurses, Smoking, explores themes like grief, humanity, and what it’s like to be a dog. In wonderfully circular prose, Means has created an unforgettable set of stories.

What is perhaps most notable about Means’ work is his willingness to experiment, break literary rules, and surprise the reader.

He messes with perspective, tense, and style, making each story seem entirely unique.

The first story of the collection, “Clementine, Carmelita, Dog,” explores the adventures of a dachshund. Halfway through, the narrator muses about the difficulty of using words to explain something as unfathomable as the inner workings of a dog’s sensory and thought processes.

The titular story is similarly interrupted; organized entirely under headers, Two Nurses, Smoking is suddenly suspended with “NO,” and the story is rewound (and then rewound again) to a new starting place. Though the collection spends pages exploring the mechanics of storytelling, Means’ talent manages to make both the constant experimentation and inconsistency not only welcome, but also powerful.

MEANS TO AN END. David Means has released his newest collection of short stories, entitled Two Nurses, Smoking Stories. (FAIR USE: Macmillan)

In areas where other writers might be unable to keep the reader engaged, Means prevails. Every broken rule and upended convention has a purpose—always serving to make the story more moving.

The temporal creativity in Two Nurses, Smoking brings the story to a conclusion of incredible potency, leaving the reader with questions about the nature of love and connection.

The choppy rambling of “Vows” brings meaning to recollection and reflection, the employment of writing prompts in the “The Depletion Prompts” creates simultaneous distance and intimacy—in fewer words, Means’ has mastered the intricacies of narrative.

Another distinctive aspect of Means’ writing is the precision with which he approaches emotion. The stories in the collection each invoke intense and specific feelings, but in a way that feels spontaneous and unintentional.

His prose winds around the core of the narrative, alternately detailed and vague.

Another distinctive aspect of Means’ writing is the precision with which he approaches emotion.

Emotions are treated with careful consideration, and it is often the final sentence or paragraph of the story that cuts to the quick, encouraging the reader to step back and reevaluate the meaning of the tale.

In short, Means has found a way to capture essential elements of the human experience with brutal honesty and beautiful prose.

Two Nurses, Smoking is Means’ sixth collection, and although the collection is ten stories, all ten are well worth the read.

Rating: ★★★★★