This is the third book of George Saunders’s short stories I’ve read, and the fourth of his books I’ve read overall, and to be honest I think he might be one of my top five favorite authors. I don’t tend to make statements like that, because lists get tiresome, and it depends on for what and in what context and so forth. But I’ve never read a single thing by him that I didn’t think was just fantastic. He is very moving and poignant, and also funny, and also ethical — raising big problems and ideas — and also deeply weird, and also completely original. There just isn’t anyone I like any better for short stories.
Pastoralia only has five or six stories in it. Some of them are — as Saunders’s stories often are — in a near-future world where people have to work jobs we haven’t thought of yet to get by: living long-term as cave people in a museum, for instance. But with Saunders, class never disappears. There’s always someone working the minimum-wage job to pay the doctor’s bill for the kid or the funeral parlor or the bail bond, even in the shiny techno-future. People still yell at each other; relatives still chafe; bosses still glance away from exploitative conditions; you’ve got to get on the stick and act like a cave person or you’ll lose your job. Saunders knows what people are like. We laugh or else we’ll cry. And he knows that, in the midst of all that, if we can find a little love and kindness and justice, it is worth everything.
I loved all the stories. But my favorite story, the one that stuck with me, was the shortest one — all of nine pages — “The End of FIRPO in the World.” It’s about a really crappy little kid, maybe ten or eleven, named Cody. We hear his manic monologue to himself as he careens around his neighborhood on his bike: racial slurs, vicious revenge plans against the Dalmeyers, who are too happy and too rich and have all the right stuff (“another puzzling dilemmoid, because why did he have Arroes when every single Dalmeyer, even Ginnie, had the Nikes with the lights in the heel that lit up?”), spiteful delusions about what will happen when he’s in charge and everyone has to bow down to him and obey him, and miserable memories of the constant abuse of his mother and her boyfriend Daryl. (Daryl coined the word “FIRPO” to “describe anything he, Cody, did that was bad or dorky…and sometimes when they thought he couldn’t hear they whispered very darkly and meanly to each other FIRP attack in progress.” We’re never told what FIRPO stands for, though I spent some time guessing.)
This blurred, sad, vindictive, nasty monologue comes to a sudden, shocking end when Cody is fatally hit by a car. The driver gets out and stands over the dying Cody. “Okay, okay,” he says, utterly distraught. “I see you are going, but you can’t go without knowing you are beautiful and loved. God loves you and you are good, you are beautiful.” Cody, meanwhile, is imagining himself apologizing to his smiling mother for being such a FIRPO son; he can’t understand what the driver is saying. The driver repeats “You are good and loved, you are beautiful in His sight,” until Cody stops thrashing.
This is big stuff. We have just gotten used to the idea that Cody is a really unpleasant little kid, someone who’s nasty and racist and mean, and maybe he has a reason but — and then George Saunders throws a huge wrench in our works. He says (in a foreword he wrote to an O.Henry Prize-winning story), “[C]ompassion is not emotional, but dispassionate; not inspired, but solid; at its heart is attention. It has nothing to do with liking someone, and everything to do with easing suffering, with understanding one’s self as essentially not separate from the sufferer.” This is a real engagement with the here and now, with the things that are happening right this moment in our country and in our neighborhood. As Saunders writes, “Fiction is an urgent business. It is the Dying Us telling stories to the Dying Us, trying to crack the nonsense in our heads open with a big hammer pronto, before Death arrives.”
I believe it. I need George Saunders. I think maybe everyone does.