No one writes more powerfully than George Saunders about the lost, the unlucky, the disenfranchised, those Americans who struggle to pay the bills, make the rent, hold onto a job they might detest folks who find their dreams slipping from their grasp as they frantically tread water, trying to keep from drowning.
In earlier story collections like Civilwarland in Bad Decline and Pastoralia, Saunders used humor and satire and hyperbole to give us darkly funny snapshots of a nightmare America only a hop, skip and jump removed from the country we see on Drudge, TMZ and reality TV.
If his earlier books reverberated with echoes of Nathanael West and Kurt Vonnegut, Saunders latest offering, Tenth of December, seems to have more in common with Sherwood Andersons Winesburg, Ohio.
There are still touches of surreal weirdness here like illegal fugitives strung together by wires running through their heads, used as lawn ornaments but for the most part the humor is more muted and the stories tend to pivot around loneliness, disappointment, frustration and the difficulty of connecting with other human beings. Although sentiment has always lurked beneath the surface of Saunders work, there is a new sympathy for his characters in these pages, an emphasis on how bad luck, poor judgment, lack of resources and family misfortune can snowball into violence or catastrophe.
Before they grew up or things spiraled downward, many of these people recall having had intimations of specialness, a sense that the glittering promises of the American dream were actually within reach. The hero of The Semplica Girl Diaries calls it a feeling of special destiny he used to have when tiny, sitting in cedar-smelling bedroom closet, looking up at blowing trees through high windows, feeling I would someday do something great. Now this husband and father finds himself stuck on a hamster wheel of familial responsibility, trying to juggle credit card payments to get his daughter the birthday present she wants so she doesnt feel poor or poorish next to her more entitled friends.
And yet, Saunders suggests, there is always the possibility of rescue or hope. A woman, who has survived an unhappy childhood to have a family of her own and a sense that the world was good, takes her children on a drive to look at a puppy they might buy, and is shocked to see a little boy in the backyard of a house, harnessed and chained, like a dog, to a tree. She wants to say to him, with a single look: Life will not necessarily always be like this. Your life could suddenly blossom into something wonderful. It can happen. It happened to me.