Two Nurses, Smoking, by David Means

In Two Nurses, Smoking, David Means presents us with a series of moments, captured by characters who are transfixed in time for a variety of reasons. Many of the characters are stuck in their grief. Others are trapped in unhappiness. Still others are caught up in lust or mental illness. Readers who read for plots will need to slow down while readers who are in it for characterization may relish these repeated opportunities to reflect along with the characters on moments of perfect recall, last sights, or imagined possibilities.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“Clementine, Carmelita, Dog”—Means immerses us in the perspective of a dog. Clementine’s primary knowledge of the world comes through her nose, not language. She smells when her owner develops cancer, but can’t understand why that owner suddenly disappears from Clementine’s world. And she also can’t understand why her next owner, a grieving man, turns her loose in the woods one day. Although she might not know why things happen, Clementine can understand love, family, and belonging. This story will be especially sweet for those of us who have pets.

“Lightning Speaks”—This story features a character, Meg, who appears in at least one other story in the collection. This non-linear story bounces around the disorganized mind of a girl/woman who seeks out love only to end up in an institution. She struggles to communicate with others who dismiss her, by taking the specialness out of her stories or talking over her. By the time her interlocutor realizes that he’s squelched Meg’s efforts to describe transcendence, the moment is lost.

Although I liked the meditativeness of Two Nurses, Smoking, overall this collection kept playing the same note. Many of the (mostly unnamed) narrators were impossible for me to differentiate; they all sounded alike. Means is excellent at capturing fleeting moments of clarity or memory, but I would’ve liked to have seen more variety among the stories. This book is best read over time and not in a single sitting.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

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