The Secret Goldfish: Stories by David Means

This inventive collection of stories, The Secret Goldfish (Fourth Estate, 224 pages), revolves around the off-kilter — either something happens that cannot be explained or the characters are bewildered about how they came to be where they are. In the title story, a goldfish survives for nine years despite the odds in a murky, nearly airless tank while a marriage disintegrates. “Blown From the Bridge” tells of the last moments a young man shares with his lover before she and her car are blown off the Mackinac bridge, her fate sealed by a mysterious dedication to her father. The main character of “Lightning Man” cannot escape a lifetime of lightning strikes, but he continues anyway through his ruined and neurologically-fried life. “It Counts as Seeing” recounts the same incident of a blind man falling down the steps of a bank from multiple points-of-view so that this straightforward incident ends up being anything but.

The lyricism in Means’ style elevates these seemingly simple stories to a more complex level, as the oddity of life is grounded in the beautiful language of the specific. In most of these stories, Means plays with form. The above mentioned story about the blind man challenges the use of first-person as reliable narrator. “Michigan Death Trip” eschews traditional narrative development by linking its vignettes not through character or plot, but through the end results. In some cases, the author fails, as in “The Nest” when a poignant story is interrupted by a break in form, but mostly he succeeds brilliantly.

These vibrant stories have the unexpected emotional impact of life itself. I highly recommend this collection to avid readers of short fiction.

Debbie Lee Wesselmann, author of Trutor and the Balloonist (1997) and Captivity (2008).


The first time, he was fishing with Danny. Fishing was a sacrament, and therefore, after the strike, when his head was clear, there was the blurry aftertaste of ritual: the casting of the spoon in lazy repetitions, the slow cranking, the utterance of the clicking reel, the baiting of the clean hook, and the cosmic intuitive troll for the deep pools of cool water beneath the gloss of a wind-dead afternoon. Each fish seemed to arrive as a miracle out of the silence: a largemouth bass gasping for air, gulping the sky, gyrating, twisting, turning against the leader’s force. But then he was struck by lightning and afterward felt like a fish on the end of the line. There was a paradigm shift: he identified purely—at least for a few months—with the fish, dangling, held by an invisible line tossed down from the heavens.

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