In 1939, wondering how Russia would react to the expanding war, Winston Churchill memorably stated: It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. This is an apt description of Hystopia, David Means’s long-awaited novel about Vietnam. Means focuses not on the war but its irresolvable aftermath—specifically, on the psychic damage visited on veterans years after the fall of Saigon. The opening pages introduce us to a twenty-two-year-old vet who commits suicide, the concluding pages present a series of suicide notes, and the pages that come between attempt to answer a grave and persistent question: Why did he do it?
Means, the author of four short-story collections, has posed this question before. A Vietnam vet’s suicide is the subject of one of his first published stories, “Close Your Eyes,” which appeared in the 1991 collection A Quick Kiss of Redemption. “Nobody really knew Stan Needman,” we are told. Needman died a hero—this, at any rate, is what the patriotic churchgoers in his provincial Michigan hometown believe, or more precisely, what they want to believe. The story pivots on the revelation—unknown to all but a sympathetic former neighbor—that Needman was a closeted gay man. This early story suggests Means’s faith in fiction’s ability to tether cause to effect. It’s a snug bond, one that doesn’t permit gaps or incongruities. The story provides a cogent psychological explanation for the young man’s death wish: Needman’s very name trumpets his central dilemma.