I came to this book already smitten due to a quirk of personal history. When I was (much) younger I was something of a short story snob in the modern MFA style. For me a “correct” story was a tedious little slice of life (because what is life if not tedious) about some unremarkable middle-class schlub (because what are we if not schlubs) agitating over what we would today call first-world problems, and written in a style somewhere between Hemingway and Carver.
Then one day in 1995 I opened the latest issue of Harper’s, which was an outstanding forum for the type of short fiction I thought was “proper,” to find this bizarre insert — I remember it being some sort of yellowish, artificially aged paper though I wouldn’t put any money on that memory — with the craziest novella I’d ever read. It was about a mutant in a theme park who journeyed across a dystopian America dodging slavers and losing his virginity to find a mutated sister whose despair at her condition had led her to prostitution. I very clearly remember reading the story with a growing sense of dismay. Science fiction, in this venerable east coast publication? Affected, orotund, but hilarious dialogue? And central billing to boot?!
This wacky mutant tale could not have been more shocking to my then-starchy sensibilities. But by the time I finished the story I discovered that its sheer ridiculousness had wormed itself into my heart. I loved it.
The name of the story was “Bounty,” and the author was a man named George Saunders. When I saw Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline in the bookstore not too long later, and realized that “Bounty” was inside (and, indeed, its crowning achievement), I bought it and ate it up.
You might be wondering how I liked the book. Ha! The truth is I know not everybody does. And the reason for this divided opinion is Saunders’ jaunty, loose-limbed, and hilarious voice. If you like the way he writes then one book is just not enough. If you don’t then he’s intolerable.
For me the wonder of Saunders’ writing is how he’s able to tie together cliches and pop expressions and some of the most casual, slapdash dialogue you will ever see into this stream of pure comedy. And then how he’s able to direct that hilarity to some disturbingly dark areas. Nearly all of the stories in CivilWarLand deal with underdogs laboring under the weight of cheerfully arbitrary bureaucracies. By the end of the book — literally the last line of “Bounty” — Saunders hints that the underdogs might grow a backbone. But until then, man. A more heartily abused and debased collection of losers you will not see.
There is an afterword by Saunders in the most recent edition of CivilWarLand that is one of the most fascinating insights into an author I’ve read. It helps that it’s really funny but more to the point you can see how the collection’s focus on losers getting crushed arose from Saunders’ own feelings of inadequacy and mediocrity as an aspiring fiction writer mired in a dull job. (Somewhere out there are storm water reports written by this man.) The afterword is also a paean to writers discovering their own style, rather than merely aping their predecessors. As it turns out the bizarre comedic voice that is Saunders’ trademark is a natural growth, not a developed mannerism — albeit one that it took him years to have the courage to uncover. Write not how you expect to sound, but how you really are, Saunders says. The man would know.