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NEW YORKER Stories

David Means

"Knocking"

March 15, 2010

Trying to make sense trying to make something, anything of David Means's "Knocking," I'm reminded of Andrew Sullivan's inadvertent swan song at the Times Magazine, "The He Hormone." As the identity of the narrator dosadoed with that of the tenant in the New York apartment overhead, all I could get out of the story was a demonstration of the sad truth that two men who have not worked out their relative status cannot live side by side. Of course, in the story it's not certain that there are two men, and, even if there are, they do not enjoy the mutual autonomy that's typical among Manhattan's adult males. They are tied in some way; revenge is mentioned very early. A naive reading of the story might conclude that the two men have been successively married to the same Mary, living with her in Westchester but also abandoned by her there.

Aside from a brief but seriously uncontextualized passage in which the narrator recall's Mary's wetness, the narrator does not seem to be very engaged by the recollection of his ex wife, and in a way that suggests that he was inadequately engaged with her when she lived under the same roof. The narrator is far more interested in victimhood, in being the object of a persecution by the man upstairs, an man his encounter with whom seems limited to this:

(our brief hallway exchange that was not really a friendly greeting but a curt nod of heads, in which it seemed to me that we agreed to a mutual distaste for each other while, at the same time, our stories in one of those fleeting, New York-style flashes were conveyed)

The narrator sounds a lot like a creative-writing student (or a teacher, perhaps) who is determined to ring all the changes on knocking sounds.

Maybe a five-minute reprieve, more or less, because it is impossible to guess how long these quiet moments will last when they open up overhead, since I know, as I wait, that the knocking will begin again, if not in the form of his tapping heel, then as some other kind of knocking: perhaps the sound of the hammer he uses to pound nails (he's a big nail pounder; he'll hang pictures at all hours), or the rubbery thud of his printer at work (he's a big printer, scrolling out documents in the wee hours of the morning, at dusk, and at dawn), or the thump of his mattress hitting the slats, accompanied by the wheeze of springs (the wheeze not officially a knocking, but functioning as a kind of arabesque, a grace note to the mattress knocks that arrive after he's done some easeful swaying in his bed).

If I were the writing teacher, I'd take points off for the entirety of the printer passage wee hours, dusk, dawn, what hooey!; not to mention the implication that the printer itself is big enough to eat the Flatiron District. But I am only the gentle reader, wondering if this story wouldn't be working better in graphic form. More visuals, less "poetry." (At least Adrian Tomine would have to let you know if there really was a guy upstairs.) For, sadly, if "Knocking" is an annoying story, it is not onomatopoeically annoying; it does not summon the repetitious nuisance of hammers and heels. As I say: ringing the changes. Different kind of pain altogether.

It's not hard to imagine why Mary would leave either of these bozos. 

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