TENTH OF DECEMBER: Stories. By George Saunders. Random House. 251 pages. $26.
America in the years when George Saunders was writing his first stories was, he says, “a place where poverty reduced a person, fear of failure produced neurosis, where everyone became a freak via material obsession, where there were no artifacts of previous cultures, no ancient ruins, just expedience-formed vistas.”
Saunders is now a recognized literary treasure and MacArthur-laureled genius, but the America of his new stories, collected in “Tenth of December,” is still a hard place for people who start to fail. Saunders doesn’t use the infirmities of the world as a platform to stage infirmities of character. He writes with such crispness and compaction, such wide-open generosity and humor, that it might be the first day of a new age.
On the acknowledgments page of “Tenth of December,” Saunders makes this radical statement: “Goodness is not only possible, it is our natural state.” For all their subversive plot lines, Saunders’ stories abound with old-fashioned virtues: moral courage, kindness and self-sacrifice.
The volume opens with “Victory Lap,” one of seven stories first published in “The New Yorker” and the first rescue story in “Tenth.” Saunders shuffles among three perspectives: the rescuer and rescuee, two young people who reside at opposite ends of the coolness spectrum, and a third stranger who tries to abduct the girl. Kyle Boot is an uptight, mullet-haired loner.
His opposite number is sunny Alison Pope, who lives on Gladsong Street. She feels that she’s been standing on the marble staircase forever, waiting for a prince to come. Her life on the stair ends with two visitations. The first visitor, an alleged meter reader, comes to kidnap Alison, and the second, Kyle, an oddball prince if ever there was one, climbs a verbal wall of doubt (brilliantly rendered) to save her. Saunders has given us a story where everything seems pending — the futures of his three narrators, but also serious answers to the questions Allison toys with (“Is life fun or scary? Are people good or bad?”).
The collection ends with “Tenth of December,” the title story, another tale of rescue and a nice complement to “Victory Lap.” Saunders gives us a pathetic situation, but no one in the story is pathetic. “Cublike” Robin, with his Prince Valiant bangs, his girth and his heroic fantasies might be a figure of fun in other hands. The mind of this boy is a beautiful place — so far, unvalued by the larger world. As he walks through the woods on a 10-degree day, Robin stages grand imaginary battles. The exhilarating twist of “Tenth of December” is that, for once, the coordinates of life line up to match Robin’s heroic impulses. Saunders both plays with and resists sentiment. In the woods with Robin is Don Eber, a 53-year-old man with a brain tumor. He has left behind his car and dis- carded his clothes in order to die by freezing. In the process of trying to save Eber, Robin falls through some pond ice and needs saving himself. Eber has to abort his own suicide. Two of the world’s losers turn out, in a modified way, to be winners.
A summary doesn’t well serve a George Saunders story. Whether he’s in his surreal mode (“Escape From Spiderhead,” “The Semplica Girl Diaries”) or writing more realistically, Saunders is a wizard of ingenuous phrasing and deadpan delivery. He’s very funny. In his hands, old plot lines — the princess rescue story in “Victory Lap” or the warrior’s homecoming in “Home,” one of the book’s best — are fortified by an offbeat mingling of dark and bright.
Mike, the returning vet in “Home,” enters his Ma’s house to find a strange man clomping down the stairs in boxers, hiking boots and a winter cap. Among the story’s surprises, Ma’s ponytailed stranger is a tame omen of the changes that will sabotage Mike, a man who feels like a chump facing the “New Age fist” of the world. His wife and babies live with a replacement husband in a “castle,” two Saabs and one Escalade in the drive. His sister has a new baby that she won’t let him touch. (Instead he cradles a pitcher of lemonade, then spikes it to the floor). As he warns after trying to set fire to Ma’s house: “Quiet. Through me runs the power of recent dark experience.”
Dark experiences run throughout “Tenth of December” — class insecurities, parental guilt, faulty desires, whatever happened to Mike at Al Raz — but no one is exempt from Saunders’s naughty sense of fun or immune to hope.
Here is Mike, rejoining his family in the last paragraph of his story: “I dropped my head and waded all docile into that crowd of no-nothings, thinking: Okay, okay, you sent me, now bring me back.”
Reviewer Catherine Holmes teaches English at the College of Charleston.