George Saunders’ latest collection of short stories, Tenth of December, has garnered much acclaim in the past month. The New York Times Magazine, as one notable example, featured the collection on its cover, proclaiming: “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.”
But the recognition, though it is well deserved, is not what makes this book a worthwhile read. Saunders’ stories are the perfect antidote for the February doldrums: they are dark yet funny, desperate yet hopeful. His characters teeter on the brink of doom but right themselves to a place of quietude.
“Did he still want it? Did he still want to live?” Don Eber, a middle-aged man with a brain tumor, asks himself in the collection’s brilliant eponymous story.
Just minutes before, Don Eber was on the verge of committing suicide so he could have a “clean” end to his life. He cannot allow himself to disintegrate physically and mentally, and most of all he cannot allow his family to witness his eminent decline. However, something changed Don Eber’s mind: a young boy rushed across an icy pond to deliver the jacket Eber removed so that his death by cold (it is 10 degrees outside we learn from a duck thermometer) would come more quickly; and when the boy fell in, Eber ran to his rescue.
“Yes, yes, oh, God, yes, please,” is the silent answer offered. Pulling a boy from the icy water turns out to be a mutual salvation, it seems.
Don Eber’s change of heart is the kind of moment that appears throughout Saunders’ collection. These stories shine a bright, unflinching light on some of life’s less savory aspects: sharp-tongued parents, disappointment in middle age, childhood disenchantment, long-term illness.
Nevertheless, these stories rarely end on the dark notes on which they began – twists of fate deliver Saunders’ characters to endings of self-acceptance and modest self-satisfaction. “Victory Lap,” for example, ends on a sigh of relief: the gangly teenaged Kyle Boot finds the courage to fight off the men who wanted to kidnap 15-year-old Allison Pope, his neighbor and love interest.
This is not to say that Saunders’ stories end on unrealistic or saccharine moments of redemption. When redemption does occur in these stories, it comes in partial form. The surly and alienating father in “Sticks,” a poignant story about a man who meticulously decorates a poll in his yard but treats his children coldly, realizes the harm he has done just before his death. Around the pole he places smaller sticks, meant to represent his children, and he hangs apology notes on the strings he runs between the sticks and pole. And yet, the grown child who narrates this story seems unaffected by his father’s display of penitence: “He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? And then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and left it by the road on garbage day.”
But should it end any other way? No. Saunders does not seek the perfect bliss of a feel-good movie’s ending. His stories deal in the gritty imperfection of actuality. His characters are not heroes, just ordinary people like us, who try to do their best in the situations they are given.
For more information on Tenth of December click here.