“There is nothing that can happen to a person that is banal,” Saunders said in a recent interview. This idea is at the heart of his sparkling new collection of short stories. While mischievously poking at his characters’ deficits—the vanity of a privileged girl, the disarray of a family’s home (“a spare tire on the dining room table”)—he pulls out a grander commonality among them that, in real life, is often overlooked: our need to do the right thing.
Several stories employ multiple perspectives, a device that works best in “Puppy.” To one another, one mother appears uppity and the second abusive—misconceptions rooted in the best of intentions. If they could see what the reader is privy to, they would find a kindred spirit—instead, their exchange threatens to devastate the less-advantaged woman. Saunders showcases his talent for satire in “Escape from Spiderhead,” the story of a prisoner injected with drugs that manufacture eloquence, lust, even true love. “Sticks” is a lovely little fable about a rigid father whose “one concession to glee” is dressing up a metal pole in the family’s yard for holidays—as Santa, Uncle Sam, a ghost. While “seeds of meanness” bloom in his children, the father yearns for forgiveness and begins to shelter and nurture the pole as a way to convey remorse and love. It is a two-page wallop that evokes the potent brevity of Isaac Babel.
But Saunders is most effective at his simplest. “Al Roosten,” with its single point of view and spare plot, captures the wild longings, vicious rage, deep loyalty and scathing masochism roiling around the mind of a droll middle-aged salesman whose fantasies include running for mayor and beating up a homeless man. Beneath the “weak smile” he gives a passerby, there is a jungle—lush, dangerous, vital.
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