Tuesday, March 07, 2017

He died in the hall with the radio on

I've been working my way through a collection of short stories, Tenth of December, by George Saunders.

I have the impression that Saunders is a big deal. (I read and loved The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip a long time ago.)

The thing is, I don't get on well with short stories in general. I don't know why. Too short to connect, to develop a relationship with? But then there are several specific short stories that I have actually liked. It's the idea of short stories I don't like. That is, I like the idea of reading a story that's short. I just don't like them. Most of them are forgettable, they don't stay with me. I generally don't choose to read short stories.

With that massive disclaimer out of the way, I'll say these stories were quite all right. In fact they were just the thing, the right kind of bedtime reading this past week. I will consider reading more Saunders. The stories are very human and tragic, and several of them have a futuristic or science fiction-y aspect that while not central is essential to the backdrop of the story. Or maybe it is central. That is, the stories start off being very familiar, until suddenly they're really not.

One of the stories ("The Semplica Girl Diaries") I would've loved to experience at novel length.

Another story I loved is shorter than short. (I like really short short stories like this one; I like them better than short stories. They have a meditative aspect like poetry. All that's inessential has been stripped away.) I give it to you here in its entirety.

Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he'd built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod's helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost. The pole was Dad's only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream. The first time I brought a date over she said: what's with your dad and that pole? and I sat there blinking.

We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he lay the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We'd stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom's makeup. One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.
That's it. That's the whole gut-wrenching story. Doesn't it make you just — ?

All of the stories in this collection are available online:

Victory Lap
Escape from Spiderhead
Al Roosten
The Semplica Girl Diaries
My Chivalric Fiasco
Tenth of December

1 comment:

MFS said...

It makes me want to just pull it off the shelf and read it. I have always appreciated the way you respond to a book rather than review it.