“Tenth of December”
George Saunders is a master short story-teller whose talent is skillfully displayed in The Tenth of December, a collection of ten short stories that was recently published (2013). A writer who seems to be writing about the mundane aspects of life – work, buying a puppy, planning a birthday party, or picking the kids up from school – Saunders is, in fact writing about the big picture: parenting, corporate greed and power, entitlement, human rights, mental illness, and despair. With George Saunders, there is always a message that says something about our culture and what we value and that’s what makes his short stories so thought-provoking, hilarious, and often heart-breaking.
In Victory Lap, 15-year old Kyle Boot faces a dilemma when a strange van pulls into the parking lot of the church across the street. Should he – the micro-managed “Beloved Only” as his parents refer to him – put himself in personal danger to save a young girl from being abducted or should he follow the “major and minor directives” his parents have always forced upon him? Told from the perspective of both Kyle and the predator, Victory Lap is a suspenseful tale of what goes on in the minds of an overly managed child and a mentally deranged young man.
In Sticks, an adult son recalls his sad childhood and takes an introspective look at his father, a very unhappy man who retreated into his yard art for comfort from the cruelties bestowed upon him throughout his life. A story about a man who is trying to come to terms with a father who relied on a one-sided relationship to deal with the harsh realities of life.
In Puppy, the story is told from the perspective of Marie, a wife and mother of two who has a deep yearning to give her kids a different childhood than what she had. She longs for a strong emotional attachment to her children and decides to get her kids a puppy. A heartbreaking story about a conscientious woman who makes personal judgements of right and wrong in a world that isn’t black and white. The story reminds me of self-righteous do-gooders who leave shaming notes on the windshields of cars parked in handicapped spaces, for the occupants who don’t seem to be handicapped.
In Escape from Spiderhead, the setting is a futuristic prison in which the convicts ,having lost their rights as human beings are being used as guinea pigs in scientific experiments – primarily pharmaceutical experiments to record the effects of drugs. A frightening story of what happens when scientists are immune from human suffering and view undesirable behavior like a ship adrift: ” we climb aboard, install a rudder, Guide him/her…”
Corporate greed and power is a popular theme in the author’s stories and Exhortation is a classic example of how displaced the corporate value system is. A memo is sent from the Divisional Director to the lowly employees on the importance of keeping a positive mental state – a communication that appears to be morale boosting but is in fact a thinly veiled vehicle to deliver threats if the performance numbers don’t increase.
Al Roosten is a loser – a middle-aged single man who owns Bygone Daze – a vintage collectible shop in a small town where Larry Donfrey of Larry Donfrey Reality is the man about town – a guy who has it all – looks, a successful business, a trophy wife, big house, and two beautiful children. When both these men strut down a runway in a charitable fashion show, Roosten comes to believe a different life is possible. A sad story about a man who envies another man and who yearns to be somebody he isn’t. It doesn’t help that Roosten still has imaginary conversations with his dead mother who tells him “I’ve known you all your life, Al, and there’s not a mean bone in your body. You are Al Roosten. Don’t forget that.”
The Semplica Girl Diaries is one of the most disturbing stories in the book collection. Told from the perspective of a 40-year old husband and father of three, The Semplica Girl Diaries is the story of a likable man, a conscientious husband and father who is so self-absorbed in his family’s economic woes that he is immune to other people’s sufferings. The story seemed straight forward at first: a middle-aged man decides to start keeping a diary documenting his days as he struggles to provide for his family. But, as the story progresses, the reader realizes that aspirations, however well-intentioned, come with a price.
In Home, Mikey, a young man suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome comes home from war to find his mother shacked up with a new boyfriend who isn’t dealing with a full deck, not that his mother or the rest of his family is either. When Mikey went off to war, he left a wife, babies, his mother, and sister but when he returns, his wife has divorced him and married a school acquaintance, his sister is living with a guy who hits her although she won’t admit it, and his mother can’t think beyond what she feels entitled to. Home is the story of how a young man struggles to live in a place with people who represent everything a home isn’t supposed to be.
In My Chivalric Fiasco, Ted finds a co-worker weeping because she had just been raped by their mutual boss at a company get together. Deeply bothered by this injustice but convinced to be quiet, Ted tries to move on reminding himself ” If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you’ll probably make it worse” but when he is promoted for his silence, Ted faces another challenge.
Tenth of December is the title story in which there are two main characters: Robin, a young boy whose mother goes on “full alert if he so much as used a stapler” and “treats him like a piece of glass,” and Don Eber, an elderly cancer stricken man who doesn’t want to be a burden to his family. When these two characters collide on a cold snowy day in the woods, they both learn something about survival.