by Tyler Beckett
George Saunders’ Tenth of December is as close to a sure pick as you can get. There isn’t even really a question here; no one is going to pick up the book, read the glowing reviews and the flattering comparisons to Mark Twain, and ask their friend, “What do you think, has this Saunders guy got any talent?” The question is answered. And of course he is a short story writer and this is a short story collection. So you’re reading a review of a book by a sacred literary figure doing what he does best, blessing the masses with his stories that come to us like mana from above, and somehow we’re still facing this central question: is the book good?
Yes. Tenth of December is a good book. It is a good collection of short stories any way you look at it, whether in terms of literary merit or entertainment value or the credibility it will lend your personal library. These are tried and true stories, published in places like Harper’s Magazine and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, so they’ve faced scrutiny before. And yes, I did enjoy the book, so now that it is thoroughly established that this is a good book, let’s get to the only original reflections I can offer: what in this book is truly great?
First story that comes to mind is “Escape from Spiderhead,” a sci-fi tale with a concept so suited to its themes that I am still angry I hadn’t written it myself. The narrator is a dull-minded jail inmate who can hardly put together sentences without the use of powerful drugs, but through this man’s descriptive language we get a story that is troubling in how straightforward it is, in how effectively it upends our understanding of human experience through the words of a placid inmate. This story ought to be on required reading lists; it’s the kind of tale that engages you no matter the reading level or interest in literature.
Then there are two stories, “Victory Lap” and “Al Roosten,” which mirror one another in such a way that to read them together troubles and relieves in turns. “Victory Lap” had me in anguish for a great deal of the story before it offered any reward while “Al Roosten” taunted me with the tangential daydreams of a middle class loser who practically taunted me with his ignored opportunities. These stories almost seemed exhortations to the reader for a kinder, more considerate lives, which perhaps makes the story “Puppy” all the more troubling. Its exploration of the way the two main characters can be so unintentionally terrible to each other is a quick devastating read. “Home” similarly agitates the reader with the dangerous mental state of a veteran returned from the war, a story that is almost too tense, almost too dark in its humor, and Saunders forces the reader to walk with his protagonist on a razor-thin line of humor and bleak despair. The fact that such a story is not a source for despair but instead close introspection on the part of the reader is a testament to the author’s careful handling.
And of course there is the story for which the collection is named, “Tenth of December.” A kid interrupts a man’s suicidal plan by nearly drowning out on a frozen lake, which is certainly an interesting enough plot hook for most writers. But here we see much of what sets a George Saunders’s story apart, the ability to bring voice and character into a story with such precision and care that a plot description is completely inadequate. The boy in this story imagines tiny aliens that battle him and prove his heroism; the man has a degenerative disease and a desire to slip away quietly. They are on journeys of their own, unrelated and important, entertaining and terrifying. Everything hangs in the balance and is explored with brevity and clear eyes. This story is an example of its kind, a sample of some of what the book Tenth of December has to offer. It’s undeniably good, unquestionably skillfully-written. But in this collection there are stories that are great, and these are more than worth reading.