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Book Reviews   |    
The Secret Goldfish: Stories
Reviewed by Joseph Berger, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2005; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.56.12.1636
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by David Means; New York, HarperCollins, 2004, 211 pages, $22.95

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David Means is a well-known short story writer who has been published in the New Yorker and other publications. The Secret Goldfish is a collection of short stories—and they are certainly unusual.

The first story is of a man who has been struck by lightning on many occasions and has survived; we follow his passage through life as marked by these incidents—from a randy teenager hoping to have sex with his girlfriend to an old man who expects that the eighth lightning episode will be his last (because of course he is not a cat). Surviving these numerous bolts has brought him some local fame, but not fortune. He has drifted into poverty.

In a variation on a Bonnie and Clyde theme, two young people, egged on by a violent third, have been on a killing spree, but the pair are really in an almost constant drug-induced stupor, besotted with each other. We know their own violent end will come soon, but for now their passion renders them oblivious.

A blind man falls down some steps while exiting a bank. Was he pushed? Did he fall deliberately, with suicide intent? Was it an accident that resulted from his pushing away an innocent bystander who intended to help?

A young woman who is abused by her father refuses her lover's plea that she stay the night with him. She insists that she return to her father and is killed driving off a bridge in a snowstorm. Was it an accident, or did she decide to end her life?

Of more interest to psychiatrists is a classic case of a conversion symptom experienced by a professional musician that interferes with his career. The author traces back the possible origins of the symptom through an affair the musician has been conducting with a dancer and further back to the musician's wife's discovery of the affair, and her reaction to it.

Some years ago Commentary magazine published a wonderful article by psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis, titled "How People Change." It began with a succinct description of a conversion symptom—Dr. Wheelis and his patient discovering the contributory psychodynamics—leading to relief through relatively brief psychotherapy. Means's writing style—in which one passage after another appears in brackets—comes across as clumsy compared with Wheelis's elegance.

I could not find one likeable character in these stories. They are often drug addicts, heavy smokers, or poor dropouts. One is even the fantasy of a body that has lain in the ground for perhaps hundreds of years. British thriller writers Gerald Seymour and Graham Hurley can powerfully describe the harsh grit and squalor of life while advancing a thoroughly gripping and meaningful plot. Means too often seems to be going nowhere.

However, my wife enjoyed Means's writing. She saw his language as clear and his "quirky" style as energetic and exciting, even though the stories end badly and nothing could have been done to change that ending.

Dr. Berger lives in Downsview, Ontario, Canada.

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