Book reviews from The Free Lance-Star.
Exceptional Short Stories
BY DREW GALLAGHER / FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
IN George Saunders’ new short story collection, “Tenth of December,” there is nary a misstep in his 10 stories. Even the best collections of stories usually have a couple that aren’t as memorable or thought-provoking as the best of the collection, but that just isn’t so with Saunders.
There is an echo of Kurt Vonnegut in Saunders’ stories, and I was often reminded of Vonnegut’s much-anthologized “Harrison Bergeron,” but with swear words. Saunders does satire quite well and it resounds in “The Semplica- Girl Diaries,” which was recently featured in an issue of The New Yorker, but perhaps more disturbing is “Exhortation,” which is eerily appropriate in this era of the downsizing of corporate America.
“Exhortation” takes the form of a memo in which the manager is “exhorting” those beneath him to keep a stiff upper lip and whistle while they work. He bandies about clichés straight from the Management 101 training manual. But as the manager delves deeper into the memo and extols the virtues of Andy, who had a Hall-of-Fame caliber October, it becomes obvious that the business they are in is not insurance underwriting or hardworking educators faced with another calendar year with no raises; their business, though still nebulous at story’s end, is one that requires a suppression of morality and a blind willingness to commit horrid acts while still being able to go home at night and read “Goodnight Moon” to the kids. It’s chilling in its parallels to the corporate clime that has emerged from the recession.
And following in the long evolutionary line of satire, Saunders often cuts his stories with humor as he does in “My Chivalric Fiasco.” Ted works at a pseudo-Renaissance Faire (Saunders rarely allows his stories and their setting to fall into neat little categories so “pseudo” is the best I can do) when he witnesses his boss having his way with one of the village maidens. Both boss and maiden are married, but Ted is promised a long-sought-after promotion if he can simply dismiss what he has witnessed.
“Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse.”
As with any story, there is anticipation by the reader of what these characters should and will do, but in the hand of Saunders, they never do what is expected of them; therein lies the beauty of “Tenth of December.”
Drew Gallagher is a freelance reviewer in Spotsylvania County.
TENTH OF DECEMBER
By George Saunders
(Random House, $26, 272 pp.)