The collected stories in The Secret Goldfish profile lives spiraling out of control, whether it’s the titular goldfish witnessing the destruction of a family or young criminals going too far. These are often bleak stories, yet there is a beauty to their language and narrative.
“Lightning Man” begins as an absurd tale of a man who is repeatedly struck by lightning but becomes a rumination on destiny and decline. “Blown from the Bridge” uses the true story of a woman’s car blowing off the Mackinac Bridge as a starting point for a fictional narrative of the night before her freak accident. “Carnie” plays on our worst fears about the shady ride operators at ramshackle carnival operations, yet also probes the sadness of their existence. Perhaps the most chilling story, “Michigan Death Trip” simply relates incident after incident of unexpected death.
David Means sometimes emphasizes character development at the expense of plot, but that doesn’t mean that these are stories where nothing happens. There are love affairs and religious visions, career-ending crises and great discoveries. However, the “events” of the stories are often found under the surface as well.
Several stories are set in Means’ native Michigan, primarily in the northern regions. As a lifelong resident of Michigan, I found this a pleasant surprise, but it left me wondering if the “up north” tourist areas he writes about will be universally understood. For instance, I question whether the idea of a car plummeting from the Mackinac Bridge will resonate as sharply with someone who has never driven across that very bridge. Or if a character driving to Houghton means as much when you don’t know where it is. That’s not to say that this is any flaw in Means’ writing, just a note that readers from Michigan may more fully appreciate some small details.
The Secret Goldfish certainly isn’t light reading, but it can be very enjoyable reading if you wish to delve into lost lives, ruminate on the human condition, or contemplate the larger forces at work in the world.