Humor, hope and despair: a review of Tenth of December by George Saunders

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

The New York Times Magazine proclaimed that Tenth of December is “the best book you’ll read this year.” While it is very early in 2013, it is hard to imagine that this collection of short stories by George Saunders will fail to be on many best of 2013 lists next December. Whether it is a brief sketch like “Sticks” or the novella-length title story, Saunders invents characters and situations that stick with you.

The first story, “Victory Lap,” is a case in point. The story focuses on a young man that appears to have a developmental disability. He is interested in geodes and hears his family telling him he is not to leave the house. Across the street, he witnesses and ultimately prevents an attempted abduction of a girl his age with whom he has almost no contact. Saunder’s telling refuses to be maudlin or overly sentimental; it is simultaneously funny, heroic and hopeful.

The same can be said of the final story, “Tenth of December,” in which Robin, an overweight boy, a victim of bullying, goes out during a cold winter day to have an imaginary adventure to rescue a girl he has a crush on (but who barely notices him and calls him Roger). He sees his imaginary rescue turn into a real opportunity when he sees a man struggling up a hill, having left behind his coat. This man was planning to kill himself to keep his family from having to deal with the indignities of caring for him as he dies of cancer. The two end up rescuing each other, both from hypothermia and (at least temporarily) from the psychological pain that tortures them both.

Such descriptions cannot get at Saunders’ humor, but in stories like “My Chivalric Fiasco,” the wit and satire are in full force. In this story, the main character works at a sort of Renaissance Faire. As payment for keeping his boss’ sexual escapades quiet, he is promoted from a custodian to a performer. He is given KnightLyf (r) to help him act like a Knight. The drug works so well, that the character begins talking like a Chaucerian Knight and believing it is his duty to reveal his boss’ improprieties. The results are predictable, but what is most noteworthy is how well Saunders has the drug begin to work and then wear off just by changing the character’s dialog.

Each story in this collection has its own joys and often its own pain and despair. But in the end, it is the goodness and hopefulness of the characters that shine through.


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