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800px-Near-Death-Experience_Illustration public domainWhat is it that I love about the wildly weird, dark and dorky stories of George Saunders?

Ever since reading his collection “The Tenth of December,” I’ve been trying to figure this out.

His stories are not easy reading. People are tortured, puppies drowned, nefarious things are happening behind a guise of bureaucratic goodness. Often the stories start in confusing, abrupt ways, and are written so lean it’s hard to see what’s holding them together.

His characters are usually bizarre or just plain sad: pathetic morons, smug hypocrites, nerdy adolescents, clueless housewives, loser dads, lame do-gooders.

At first you think Saunders is making fun of them, judging them, exposing their hypocrisy, their meanness, their arrogance, their stupidity. You think: this satire. It’s ironic. It’s absurdist.

Much of what he writes has a hard comic edge. Some of it is laugh-out-loud hilarious.

But then you realize he’s not laughing at these characters. He’s not laughing with them either. Most are too naïve, too serious, too un-self-aware to have the capacity to laugh at themselves. They have no idea how comical they are, although they may be painfully aware of how they are made the butt of others’ jokes.

The stories aren’t about the characters at all. They are about us—the readers. How he moves us from A to Z.

“I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters,” Saunders wrote in an essay on Vonnegut (and quoted in a NY Times interview).

“He enters in one state of mind and exits in another. The writer gets no points just because what’s inside the box bears some linear resemblance to ‘real life’ — he can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit. . . . The black box is meant to change us. If the change will be greater via the use of invented, absurd material, so be it.”

Saunders is taking us on a hilarious, diabolical, fun-house tour, and at the end, we realize how all these crazy, ridiculous, pathetic losers we meet along the way are us in disguise. Me, in a different life—my son, my daughter, my mother, my poor dear deranged grandpa. Beneath the pathetic veneer is someone we love, or someone worth loving.

In the same interview, Saunders talks about how his family has influenced his writing:

“My life with them has been everything to me. And loving them the way I do—I think that was a very major development in my artistic life. Suddenly everything mattered. What helped them was good, what hurt them was bad. And then that feeling got writ large. I became aware . . . of the fact that cruelty or even just mere thoughtlessness had an object: someone was getting bruised. And someone must have (or should have) loved that bruised party as much as I love my family. So the world became morally charged. . . . People were precious and not just my people.”

But these kinds of revelations in his stories do not come easily, without struggle. Or without a cost. They come like The Misfit in Flannery O’Conner’s short story. He stands over the silly and self-absorbed Grandmother with a gun held to her head. And then, just before he kills her, he holds up her heart, the heart she never knew she had until that very moment.

They come with regret, with a deep, gut-wrenching sadness. And sometimes, at the very end, with a heart-searing and heart-soaring softness.

The first story in Saunders collection, “Victory Lap”, opens with a young teenage girl floating down a marble staircase imaging all her secret admirers below. It’s written in a 3rd person stream-of-consciousness point of view, in the vernacular of the blissfully naïve and hopelessly romantic. She gushes about how lovely everyone is, all the girls at school, all the boys:

“Actually, she loved her whole town. That adorable grocer, spraying his lettuce! Pastor Carol with her large comfortable butt! The chubby postman, gesticulating with his padded envelope! It had once been a mill town. Wasn’t that crazy? What does that even mean?

There is so much she doesn’t know. Like how to change the oil. Or even check the oil. How to open the hood. How to bake brownies. That was embarrassing, actually, being a girl and all. And what about a mortgage? Did it come with the house? When you breast-feed, did you have to like push the milk out?”

When she’s happy like this, she tells us, as she pirouettes around the house practicing ballet, she imagines a conversation with a baby deer trembling in the woods. She admonishes the hunter who slays the deer’s mother.

“Her guts were completely splayed. Jeez, that was nice! Don’t you have anything better to do, dank hunter, than kill this baby’s mom? You seem like a nice enough guy.”

She believes in niceness. “In a straw poll at school, she had voted for people being good and life being fun.”

While she’s practicing ballet, alone in the house, a meter-man who’s not a meter-man knocks at her back door. “Something told her to step back in, slam the door. But that seemed rude.” So she smiled and asked, “How may I help you?”

Next we meet Allison’s nerdy teenage neighbor, Kyle, who she calls a “poor goof.”

He’s just come home from school to see a note his father leaves him about placing their new expensive geode out on the back deck.

“Gar, Dad, do you honestly feel it fair that I should have to slave in the yard until dark after a rigorous cross-country practice . . . ?

Shoes off, mister.

Yoinks, too late. He was already at the TV. And had left an incriminating trail of microclods. Way verboten. Could the microclods be hand-plucked? Although: problem. If he went back to hand-pluck the microclods, he’d leave an incriminating new trail of microclods”

He has imaginary conversations with his Dad, who calls him Scout, and his mother who calls him Beloved Only. He imagines them watching his every move with disapproval, and him explaining away his failures at meeting their strict standards, even though they both send “weekly braggy emails to both sets of grandparents” about him.

While he’s out on the back deck ready to set the geode he sees Allison with the meter-man who is dragging her toward his van. When she resists, he punches her in the stomach. The man sees Kyle and warns him to stay away: “Move a muscle and I’ll knife her in the heart. Swear to God. Got it?”

“Kyle’s mouth was so spotless all he could do was make his mouth do the shape it normally did when saying Yes.

He was just a kid. There was nothing he could do.”

He imagines going inside, pretending he never saw anything. Imagines how he’ll look and what he’ll say when eventually he learns that Allison was raped and murdered while he was innocently sitting inside playing with his railroad cars. He imagines how pleased his parents will be that he hadn’t put himself in harm’s way. “Super job, Scout.” “We are well please, Beloved Only.”

Then he was running.

“Oh God! What was he doing, what was he doing? Jesus, shit, the directives he was violating! Running in the yard (bad for the sod); transporting a geode without its protective wrapping: hopping the fence, which stressed the fence, which had cost a pretty penny; leaving the yard; leaving the yard barefoot.”

He throws the geode at the head of the man who falls, his head a bloody mess. Allison crab-crawls into the house and calls 911.

The story could have ended here. It would have been a good story. But Saunders takes it further. He pushes the narrative into something beyond a would-be rape gone bad, a skinny scared kid saving the beautiful princess next door. He pushes the story past mere good into sublime. He takes the reader to that state of grace, where we feel that heart-searing, heart-soaring softness.

Allison watches from the window while Kyle does a wild, crazy “Who’s the man!” dance on the hood of the car.

“You still moving, freak? Got a plan, stroke-dick? Want a skull gash on top of your existing skull gash, big man? You think I won’t?”

He lifts the geode again. Ready to bring it down on the injured man’s head once more.

“Kyle, don’t,” she whispers.

She has nightmares about that day, about Kyle murdering the man. About his bloody head dissolving. And Kyle looking at her with that look: My life is ruined. I’m a murderer. Until her parents remind her, over and over again. It didn’t happen like that. You stopped him. You saved Kyle.

“You did so good, Mom said.

Did beautiful, Dad said.”

The final story in the collection does the same thing. Pushes the story to a satisfying conclusion, and then takes it further, into the sublime.

In Saunders’ title story, “The Tenth of December,”(which you can read online) a boy with “unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerism” walks with his pellet gun out into the snowy woods. Here he will confront the wily “Netherworlders” who live under rocks, and today seem intent on capturing the new girl from Montreal in his homeroom class.

“He just loved the way she talked. So apparently did the Nethers, who planned to use her to repopulate their depleted numbers and bake various things they did not know how to bake.”

In the middle of this fantasy, he sees a coat left lying on the snow, and off in the distance a half-naked man leaning against a tree.

“What kind of person leaves his coat behind on a day like this? The mental kind, that was who. This guy looked sort of mental. Like an Auschwitz dude or sad confused grandpa.”

Despite fears and misgivings, he sets racing off across the frozen duck pond with the coat to rescue the old man, for “had not Jesus said, Blessed are those who help those who cannot help themselves but are too mental, doddering, or have a disability?”

The old man, who is dying, and who wants to spare himself and his family the indignity of a slow, painful, humiliating death, has come out here to end his life. He has just sat down to wait peacefully for what he hopes will be a quick and relatively painless death, when:

“Oh, for shitsake.

On for crying out loud.

Some kid was on the pond.

Chubby kid in white. With a gun. Carrying Eber’s coat.

You little fart, put that coat down, get your ass home, mind your own—

Damn. Damn it.”

The boy falls through the ice and the dying man must try to gather enough strength to get up, get down the hill and save him. Painstakingly, cursing the whole way, he does. He manages to pull him out, get him dried off the best he can, and then forces the boy to get up and moving, so he can run home before he freezes to death. Then Eber sits back to finish what he had started.

The story could have finished here, but it doesn’t. He sits there, thinking about what he’s doing. Two weeks before Christmas. Before Molly’s favorite holiday. He’s “offing” himself. Too late, he has second thoughts.

“He tried to send some last thoughts to Molly. Sweetie, forgive me. Biggest fuckup ever. Forget this part. Forget I ended thisly. You know me. You know I didn’t mean this.”

I won’t tell you how the story ends—you really need to read this. My little summary here doesn’t do it justice. But I will share what Eber comes to realize, which is at the heart of nearly every Saunders story I’ve read so far. That moment of grace.

“He saw it now, was starting to see it—if some guy at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, he now saw that there could still be many—many drops of goodness, is how it came to him—many drops of happy—of good fellowship—ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not—-had never been—-his to withheld. Withhold”

This last shows his dying brain misfiring.

At the end of another story called “ComCom,” not found in this collection, the narrator and a man called Giff are murdered. Afterward, they rise together above the world:

“Snow passes through us, gulls pass through us. Tens of towns, hundreds of towns stream by below and we hear their prayer, grievances, their million signals of loss . . . . All this time we grow in size, in love, the distinction between Giff and me diminishing, and my last thought before we join something I can only describe as Nothing-Is-Excluded is, Giff, Giff, please explain, what made you come back for me?”

He learns:

“This is why I came back. I was wrong in life, limited, shrank everything down to my size, and yet, in the end, there was something light-craving within me, which sent me back, and saved me.”

That’s what I love about his stories. He shows us that in the end, when all the superficialities and fears and meanness are flayed from us, beneath that, we are light-craving creatures: people who are starving for the want of goodness, the want of grace in our lives. And like Eber, we realize those “drops of goodness” that we experience at each other’s hands, though few and far between, are worth all the other absurd humilities and indignities that life may heap upon us.

One drop of grace is all it takes to save us from each other and ourselves.

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