American Gogol
February 15, 2021

When I pick up a book that Time calls “screamingly funny” and “intoxicating,” I'm poised to disagree, to find fault. Sometimes, rarely, I find the critics are right. I had that experience recently when I hurtled through George Saunders’s 2000 short story collection, Pastoralia.

Pastoralia’s stories are populated by extravagantly pitiful losers, their broken dreams inspiring delusions of grandeur, resignation, or titanic revenge fantasies. Nearly all of them miss the opportunity for happiness because of failures of nerve and bouts of self-doubt.

The narrator of “Sea Oak” serves tables at Joysticks, a strip-club restaurant, and lives with his sisters, Min and Jade, their children, and their aunt Bernie. Min and Jade spend their days watching shows like How My Child Died Violently and The Worst That Could Happen, “a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could.” Aunt Bernie is a Pollyanna who sees good in everything; her favorite phrase is “hunky-dory,” until she dies of fright when an intruder breaks into their flat in the violent apartment complex of “Sea Oak.” Her nephew and nieces dutifully bury her, but the next day her corpse disappears from the grave and re-appears in the apartment, barking out orders as it rots to pieces in an armchair. Her brush with death has purged her silly optimism. She dies a second time with a baffled plaint: “Some people get everything and I get nothing. Why? Why did that happen?”

Aunt Bernie’s question haunts the whole collection. In “Winky,” Neil Yaniky is inspired by a self-help guru to kick his retarded sister, Winky, out of the house because she’s “crapping in my oatmeal.” When he gets home, he loses his nerve and bottles up his rage for another day. Cody, the boy protagonist of “The End of FIRPO in the World,” bikes through his neighborhood plotting revenges against everyone who has bullied him, only to die after being struck by a car. “Why?” he might have asked, “Why did that happen?”

Saunders plays the situations for comedy, but much of the comedy comes from his writing. The dialogue is, as Time says, “screamingly funny.” The narrator of the title story, “Pastoralia,” plays a caveman at a theme park. His partner cavewoman doesn’t stay in cave-character, but the narrator keeps covering for her in his nightly reports. One evening he gets a fax from his boss, Nordstrom:

Why should I believe you when you say she is going good, when all the time she was doing so bad you always said she was doing so good. Oh you have hacked me off. Do you know what I hate? Due to my childhood? Which is maybe why I’m so driven? A liar. Dad lied by cheating on Mom, Mom lied by cheating on Dad, with Kenneth, who was himself a liar, and promised, at his wedding to Mom, to buy me three ponies with golden saddles, and then later, upon divorcing Mom, promise to at least get me one pony with a regular saddle, but needless to say, no ponies were ever gotten by me. Which is maybe why I hate a liar.

The self-analytic digression is pitch-perfect. And in a fax!

Saunders has deft control of information. Mickey, the barber in “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” is sitting outside his shop ogling women. One slightly Hispanic girl walking into a church attracts him, and he spins a fantasy of getting her pregnant and spending his life with her in a Mexican hut, but then he wonders if “Miss Hacienda” would like Ma and worries what would happen if she asked Ma why she has “thick sprays of gray hair growing out of her ears.” Mickey gets angry at the hypothetical slight: “How would Miss Hacienda like it if after a lifetime of hard work she got wrinkled and forgetful and some knocked-up slut dressed like a Mexican cowgirl moved in and started complaining about her ear hair? Who did Miss Hacienda think she was, the Queen of Sheba?”

Through several pages of internal monologue, it gradually dawns on us that Mickey is an incel, still living with Ma. At the end of Mickey’s interior monologue, Saunders suddenly switches the point of view: “As Miss Hacienda came out of the church she saw a thick-waisted, beak-nosed, middle-aged man rise angrily from a wooden bench and stomp into Mickey’s Hairport, slamming the door behind him.” Semi-switches the point of view, that is: We're looking through the girl's eyes, but she's still "Miss Hacienda." The mixed viewpoint makes the final sentence even funnier.

For all the comedy, Saunders writes poignantly, sometimes tenderly about the lost and unlucky. A lapsed Catholic and practicing Buddhist, Saunders retains and elicits a Christian sympathy for the least of these. “FIRPO” ends with a Flannery-esque moment. After Cody gets hit by the car, the driver runs up to him, frantic to save Cody’s life, but more frantic to let Cody know he’s loved: “You’re going, okay. I see you’re going, but look, please don’t go without knowing that you are beautiful and loved. Okay? Do you hear me? You are good, do you know that? God loves you. God loves you. He sent His son to die for you.” Cody dies hearing words he never heard before.

Saunders’s most recent book is a A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a collection of Russian stories with commentary from Saunders. As soon as I saw a chapter on Gogol, things clicked into place. Saunders isn’t another Twain, and he’s too sentimental to be a satirist. No. He’s an American Gogol.

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