MacArthur Fellow’s short-story collection is funny, sad and … genius

If one of your New Year’s resolutions was to read higher quality fiction, consider curling up with Tenth of December (Random House, $26), the new short-story collection from George Saunders. If you don’t know Saunders’ previous work, shame on you. Scores of fine writers publish thoughtful, well-crafted short stories but Saunders sits mostly alone at the top of the heap. It’s not just that Saunders is bright—the MacArthur Foundation awarded him a “Genius Grant” in 2006—it’s that Saunders is doing more than just entertaining. He’s musing on the nature of good and evil; he’s experimenting with language; he’s satirizing everything in sight. For these reasons, Saunders isn’t just a writer. He’s a national treasure.

In “Victory Lap,” a high school student witnesses a classmate’s abduction by a knife-wielding rapist and wrestles with whether or not to intervene. The story unfolds in a series of amusing interior monologues (the boy, the girl, the rapist).

“Sticks” is a haunting character study about a man who constructs a crucifix out of metal poles and his obsession with dressing it in various outfits: “On Fourth of July, the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veterans Day, a soldier, on Halloween, a ghost.” Over time, the displays become more abstract. “Sticks” is a lesson in economy, just two paragraphs long. Saunders can accomplish more in 19 sentences than most writers can in 400 pages.

In “Al Roosten,” a struggling businessman kicks another man’s keys and wallet out of sight at a charity event. Al isn’t an evil person, he’s just drowning in depressing circumstances.

“Escape From Spiderhead” takes place in a laboratory where scientists administer designer drugs to a prisoner named Jeff. The drugs make Jeff fall in—and out—of love with two female subjects but unforeseen complications arise during the clinical trials.

“My Chivalric Fiasco” is one of the funniest entries here. Ted, a janitor at a medieval theme park, is promoted to pacing guard after witnessing his boss’ indiscretion. As pacing guard, Ted is given a dose of KnightLyfe, which endows him with a heightened sense of morality and compels him to tell the truth (in Olde English, of course).

The title story introduces us to Don, a man dying of cancer who decides to kill himself by walking into the icy woods and freezing to death. Along the way, he encounters Robin, who—like so many of the characters in Tenth of December—makes a conscious decision to do good by attempting to save Don.

The stories in Tenth of December are clever, inventive and profound. There is humor everywhere, but be warned: Some stories are achingly sad and devastatingly bleak. You read Saunders, and then you start all over again and reread Saunders. Not so much to catch something you missed the first time, but for the sheer enjoyment. ★★★★★

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