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the pathetic caverns - books by author - George Saunders

eclectic reviews and opinions

George Saunders,

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

The seven stories in this collection share singularly feckless protagonists and a dystopian near-future sensibility. All the other reviewers' blurbs called it funny or even hilarious -- well, this reader found it too on-target and entirely too-credible to laugh at, with the possible exception of "Bounty," the longest, and probably best story. With its picaresque odyssey across the American landscape, and possibly toward personal revelation, and a backdrop of renewed slave-trade (of the genetically impure, this time) a raft of comparisons to Huck Finn (sorry) would seem inevitable, if not for the fact that Voltaire's Candide is even more apropos.

Saunders's prose is mostly rapid-fire, present-tense, first person and somehow both flat and weird. It imbues his dilapidated future with a creepy verisimilitude and a peculiar sense of urgency. Here's the opening sentence of "The 400-pound CEO": "At noon another load of racoons comes in and Claude takes them out back of the office and executes them with a tire iron."

Here's a paragraph from "Bounty"'s rail-freight-hopping westward journey:

Near Cleveland I see a mob pursuing a pig past a gutted Wal-Mart. Finally the pig's exhausted and stands heaving on a berm. The mob seems unsure how to proceed. Then some go-getter shows up with a crowbar. The pig takes a whack in the head, then discovers new energy and trots off again with the mob in pursuit. Fortunately at this point the train rounds a bend.

The "fortunately" here is tell-tale; it highlights one of the attributes that unify Saunders' protagonists: they're more compassionate, more essentially human than almost all of the people they encounter, and inevitably disenfranchised, because they're also fundamentally softer and less able to cope with Saunders' brave new worlds.

"Bounty" has a bigger scope and correspondingly bigger punch than most of the stories. It's also much funnier. Just as almost everyone Candide encounters espouses one philosophy or another to the hapless lad, Saunders' unnamed guy-on-the-lam encounters a bevvy of folks who unload themselves in musical, if not always realistic, fashion, like the sadistic but jovial slaver Krennup:

"Now," he says. "I should tell you that, appearances to the contrary, I am neither an angry nor a cruel man. I do not dislike you, and if the truth be told, do not for an instant buy into the idea that you and your kind are somehow inferior to me, or deserving of subjugation. Neverthless, you will observe me to be, to say the least, the proverbial harsh taskmaster. Why? you might ask. In a word: Carlotta Bins. The most beautiful woman in Missouri, who because of my rough-hewn appearance has declared herself out of my reach, unless I impress her in some less aesthetic-based arena. And I have chosen my arena, and it is to be slave-trading, which will garner me money, money, money, which will translate into power, power, power, and houses, houses, houses, and a wardrobe suitable for my lady, the charmed, raven-tressed, irrepressible Carlotta."

But if "Bounty" is the centerpiece, it shouldn't detract from the other six stories. This book instantly catapulted Saunders onto my short-list of favorite short story writers; "Bounty" makes me eager to see him tackle something novel-length as well.

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