San Francisco Chronicle // Tenth of December by George Saunders

My review of Ten of December ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 13, 2013.

It’s tough to think of a living short-story writer – or even a dead one – who garners as much peer approval as George Saunders. Alice Munro, maybe, but that’s about it. Don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of amazing short-story writers working today, maybe more at one time than ever before. I’d pit Lorrie Moore’s “Self-Help” or Gloria Naylor’s “Women of Brewster Place” against “Dubliners” in a steel-cage match any day of the week.

Recent collections by Brian Evenson and Steven Millhauser and Jim Shepard and Mary Caponegro provide ample evidence that the story form is enjoying a golden age, but it’s Saunders whose name is both whispered in reverent tones and shouted from the rooftops by other authors. His sparkling new story collection “Tenth of December” demonstrates why.

The best stories here – and they’re all good, mind you – put the technique of free indirect speech to tremendous use. “Victory Lap” and “Puppy,” for example, are told in multiple third-person voices, but those voices are both so tied to the specific characters’ inner workings that third person and first person become almost indistinguishable.

We experience the events of “Al Roosten” from inside the main character’s head, but we also have an external view from which to understand the poor guy in ways he doesn’t understand himself. Al is a sad man who has lived in the same small town his whole life and hasn’t amounted to much. He is prone to excessive daydreaming and has started to resent the occasional sympathy and pity he earns from those around him. One target of his growing anger is the homeless population sleeping near his failing shop. The obliviousness is both heartbreaking and frightening.

“He believed they preferred to be called ‘homeless.’ Hadn’t he read that? ‘Hobo’ being derogatory? Jesus, that took nerve. Guy never works a day in his life, just goes around stealing pies off windowsills, then starts yelping about his rights? He’d like to walk right up to a homeless and call him a hobo. He’d do it too, he would, he’d grab that damn hobo by the collar and go, Hey, hobo, you’re ruining my business. I’ve missed my rent two months in a row.”

In “Puppy,” another personal favorite, a woman named Marie drives her children to a stranger’s home to buy a dog. Her own early traumas find expression in the jealousy she feels – even if she doesn’t realize it – of her own son and daughter: “These were not spoiled kids. These were well-loved kids. At least she’d never left one of them standing in a blizzard for two hours after a junior-high dance. At least she’d never drunkenly snapped at one of them, ‘I hardly consider you college material.’ At least she’d never locked one of them in a closet (a closet!) while entertaining a literal ditchdigger in the parlor.”

Marie is obviously well off, and she feels superior to the “white-trash” dog seller, who keeps her own troubled child out back on a leash, but she’s oblivious to the fact that her kids are out of control, too, albeit in a different way. No one makes better use of subtext than George Saunders.

A few themes wind their ways through the collection. There are any number of struggling parents, many of whom are becoming aware that they haven’t fulfilled the dreams they had as kids, that they’re never going to live in mansions with servants and swimming pools. There’s nothing more tragic than the resignation that goes along with lowering one’s expectations, and the best these people can do is shield their own children from that sorrow as long as possible.

Now, I have a confession to make. Despite all the hyperbole, or maybe because of it, I haven’t always been so enamored of all of Saunders’ fiction. I feel that he has from time to time stretched the absurd elements of his fiction a bit too far in the name of humor. Yes, we’re living in the Age of Irony, I get that, but humor works best when it elucidates the sincerity and emotional connections, as it does here in “Escape From Spiderhead” and “The Semplica Girl Diaries” and “Sticks.”

Throughout this collection, Saunders uses humor to amplify tension rather than avoid it, and the results are superb. Many of the 10 stories in “Tenth of December” are comfortable with making us uncomfortable. They go for the jugular instead of the funny bone, and they’re capable of astounding, unnerving and delighting all at once. The prose is so smartly crafted throughout that it makes me want to go back and re-evaluate all of Saunders’ previous books. But first I plan to re-reread this new collection one more time.