The Willful Innocence that mars several of the political pieces might have been predicted from Saunders’s often brilliant short stories, which generally feature hapless, good-hearted yobs as protagonists. He uses what I’ll call the Apparent Doofus Technique, whereby an author invents a seemingly innocent character who will become illuminated in the course of the action and come to Greater Moral Understanding. The problem with this is that at the very appearance of the Apparent Doofus, readers know what is on the way — not an education, but a Life-Enhancing Epiphany. In the dazzling “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” for instance, the narrator, while being stabbed to death by a crazy Vietnam vet, envisions “the man I could have been, and the man I was.” He sees into his killer’s past: his rough childhood, his brutal mother. “And then,” says the narrator, “everything is bright and new and keen with love.” At the heart of this heartless world beats Something Suspiciously Like Sentimentality. As a fiction writer, Saunders was born to forgive.
And yet, the Tireless American Good Will of this son of Chicago tends to wear down a Reader’s Resistance, not to mention — even more impressively — his Recalcitrant Subjects. In the best of the dispatches in “The Braindead Megaphone,” he travels along the Mexican-American border between Brownsville, Tex., and San Diego. In Texas, he goes on patrol with the Minutemen, vigilantes intent on stopping illegal immigration. Clearly aware of his tendencies, Saunders tells himself: “Stop trying so hard to be Johnny Compassion.” He and the Minutemen get lost in the brush, pick each other up, then spend a night chatting about ballet and Renaissance fairs while guarding the border with an impressive arsenal. Though he may be a Liberal and they Gun-Toting Right-Wingers, Saunders detects “the ornery-eye-twinkle-of-possible-friendship.” He astutely surmises that some people, “imagining the great What Is Out There, imagine it intends doom for them; others imagine there is something out there that may be suffering and in need of their help.”
When it comes to writing about literature, however, all of the Seeming Naïveté that sometimes mars the political pieces falls away. What remains is a sophisticate’s bright wonder. Saunders delivers canny insights only afforded a writer who himself has been lost in the Impenetrable Jungles of Narrative and has hacked his way out week by despairing week. By itself, the essay on Donald Barthelme’s short story “The School” constitutes an entire M.F.A. program in 11 pages, and — please note, aspiring writers — it’s thousands of dollars cheaper. Saunders describes how Barthelme constructs the story as a series of deaths ranging from pets to classmates. Such a faithfully followed, even inventive pattern is not enough, however. If that’s all a writer contrives, he’s “treating you like a dumb beast, endlessly fascinated by a swinging weight on a cord.”
The gift for sympathy Saunders exercises to uneven effect in the reported pieces finds apt outlet in a superb essay about “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” He appears to inhabit Mark Twain’s head, so astute is his sense of how the narrative must have evolved. Saunders argues that Twain’s comic novel was “doing things a comic novel was not supposed to do, and yet he sort of liked it.” He regards the book’s disastrous ending as the unsatisfactory resolution of a split within Twain, between the revolutionary who believed that blacks were full-fledged humans and the reactionary who wasn’t sure.
In an essay about Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” Saunders gives an account of his own evolution as a writer. Under the influence of Hemingway, he’d been under the impression that “great writing required a Terrible Event One Had Witnessed.” Saunders traveled the globe in search of Said Event but as he disarmingly puts it, he was “too cautious to be blown up or see anything horrific.” Vonnegut’s novel, which he read at 23 while on a seismic crew in Sumatra, liberated him from being a “control freak” of a writer. “Slaughterhouse Five” “felt like an ode to the abandonment of control, a disavowal of mastery.” These are still good words for a writer again rounding the globe to live by, even A Kind-Hearted One.Continue reading the main story
THE BRAINDEAD MEGAPHONE
By George Saunders.
257 pp. Riverhead Books. Paper, $14.
Сверху раздался душераздирающий крик Стратмора. ГЛАВА 86 Когда Сьюзан, едва переводя дыхание, появилась в дверях кабинета коммандера, тот сидел за своим столом, сгорбившись и низко опустив голову, и в свете монитора она увидела капельки пота у него на лбу. Сирена выла не преставая.