I have no idea how George Saunders does it. His stories have some kind of alchemy that I can’t figure out. As many as half rub me the wrong way, but the good ones are exceptional. This collection is no different.
While reading Tenth of December I jotted down notes, as I usually do, trying to come up with an explanation—or at least a theory—for my shifting reactions to George Saunders. After thousands of words’ worth of contradicting notes, I still can’t figure it out.
For certain, some of his old tricks are turning stale. There are two stories (“Escape from Spiderhead” and “My Chivalric Fiasco”) in which characters take satirically named drugs (Docilryde™, KnightLyfe™) administered by a sinister institutional overlord personified by a dumpy middle manager. Both take place in typical Saundersian locales (prison/drug trial facility, amusement park). Both offer decent prose but disappointing endings.
But another quintessentially Saundersian story blew my doors off. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a father buried under credit card debt wins $10,000 on a scratch-off ticket. Instead of paying down the debt, he buys his daughter what she wants most of all: a trio of “SGs,” immigrant women from third world countries strung up by “microline” through the head and displayed in the family’s backyard. Here Saunders manages to mix over-the-top imagery with heart-chilling real-world problems, creating a brilliant, affecting story.
With other stories I became convinced that another Saunders stand-by—”weird guy narrating mundane/disturbing events in weird voice”—had been overused. The title story relies too much on its eccentric voice, and the events it describes—a kid falling in an icy lake, a self-pitying and suicidal cancer patient diving in after him—never seem to mesh well with its style. “Exhortation” takes the form of a memo from a corporate executive, another premise Saunders has used before; and the story never takes off.
But then “Al Roosten,” in which a sad-sack , meek loser makes a fool of himself at a charity auction, is amazing.
At another point, I convinced myself I didn’t like Saunders’s attempts to be too realistic. A short-short called “Sticks” is my least favorite of the collection: two and a half pages of shrug about a mean father who dresses up a metal cross in his yard for different holidays. The more intense “Puppy” unsuccessfully mixes Saunders’s teenager voice (often called his “Valley Girl patois”) with a bit of a hodge-podge of story elements: a well-off woman takes her spoiled kids to buy a puppy from a white trash family, who has a disabled child they leash to a tree in their yard, allegedly for his own good. The woman refuses to buy the dog, so as not to support tying disabled kids to trees, but also refuses to stand up to the child’s mother. It’s a decent premise but a weird place to leave some of Saunders’s weaker comedy bits, like the mention of a kid’s “Game Boy” games “Noble Baker” and “Bra Stuffer.”
But then I read “Home,” the most realistic piece in the collection, and probably my favorite Saunders story of all time. It plainly follows a vet from Afghanistan (or maybe Iraq) who returns home to find his life in shambles. Saunders plays it out with nary a tinge of his trademark weird prose, yet it’s still both hilarious and deeply affecting. For example, here’s a conversation between the soldier’s mother and her new boyfriend, the listless Harris, about how Ma has stopped cussing:
“She’s only doing it because of work” Harris explained.
“Harris don’t work,” Ma said.
“Well, if I did work, it wouldn’t be at a place that tells me how I can talk,” Harris said. “It would be at a place that lets me talk how I like. A place that accepts me for who I am. That’s the kind of place I’d be willing to work.”
“There ain’t many of that kind of place,” Ma said.
“Places that let me talk how I want,” Harris said. “Or places that accept me for who I am?”
“Places you’d be willing to work,” Ma said.
The entire story follows like this, simple and with an unvarnished realist style, but also pitch-perfect and completely surefooted.
“Home” is my pick for indispensable story of this collection (here’s the link to the New Yorker version, if you have a subscription), but I have no doubt that other readers will love other stories. I have no idea why I like the ones I like and dislike the others, but I do have a new theory: Because of his audacious, out-there style, George Saunders strikes out more than other famed short story writers (like Alice Munro, say), but when he connects, he hits the longest home runs.
I loved only three stories out of the collection’s ten, but I loved them; I called this book a Great Read for them. You might love different ones, but chances are you will find a few to love, and I’ll take that deal any day of the week—even if I still have no idea why.