David Mean’s short story collection, Instructions for a Funeral, contains provocative and heart-wrenching stories about fatherhood, relationships, addiction, and regret. The title story, “Instructions for a Funeral” finds William Kenner delineating his last wishes to his lawyer and in so doing relating a betrayal by a friend and an encounter with organized crime. In “Terminal Artist,” the narrator learns that a friend he thought had died from complications from surgery during cancer treatment might have instead been the victim of an “angel of mercy.” After challenging a rich town boy to a fight for saying he hated Okies, ranch hand Frankie catches the eye of Sarah Breeland who saw in him a complicated kindness.
Two sets of stories are interconnected; the rest stand alone. However, the stories share common themes, one being a sense of fate, destiny, or premonition and how memory can retroactively give certain events or moments significance. For example, one character considers the time immediately before learning his wife had an affair: “On the penultimate day, as I now think of it, the point through which the rest of my life with Sharon would seem to bow, or, rather, bend, so that everything that transpired after that afternoon seemed to lead to the day when Sharon confessed to me, admitted that, yes, she had been seeing X, but that she had broken it off with him, let go of him, was how she put it.” Forgiveness also appeared in multiple stories as did the creation of stories. Ultimately, all the stories seemed to have thematic cohesion with the exception of El Morro which didn’t fit as well in the collection.
Overall, I liked the writing style, but I did find some devices the author used to be distracting at best, at worst, irritating. In multiple stories, the phrase “I thought, I think” or a close variation is used a total of ten times. Although it points to the fallibility of memory and furthers the theme, the sheer volume of the phrase made it lose meaning. Another frequent device was a parenthetical comment followed by an exclamation point (e.g., “I still despise that phrase!” or “Yes, fucking navels!”) which I found off-putting. Finally, the sentences and the paragraphs were unduly long. I found myself frequently rereading because I’d get lost in the prose. As I progressed through the book, I got more accustomed to the style, but it did make for a challenging reading experience.
I wasn’t sure if we were to assume the same person narrated all the stories, but in any case, in many stories, the narrator was a writer and meditated on the art of writing (with two stories explicitly about writing). In “Terminal Artist,” for example, the narrator reflects, “I’d never be able to use her death in a story. I’d have to find some other way, I thought.” Several times, this idea of using the events in the narrative in a story arises. On the one hand, it is interesting to think of how stories are constructed from real-life events and then are manipulated and reformed by the author, but the idea came up so often, it felt overdone and lost effectiveness.
That said, I enjoyed the collection and came away feeling touched. Ultimately, it was through the stories and the retelling that the events gained meaning or, as Means describes it, provides a state of “deeper grace.”
Thank you to Netgalley and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.