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Another Roadside Attraction

Author George Saunders has a thing for theme parks, or more accurately, the business end of theme parks. In CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (Random House), his debut collection of stories and a novella, they serve as a grotesque microcosm of America itself, past, present, and future. And so in his worldview, it's not just the leisure attraction of the title story that's going down the tubes, but the entire American economy, as middle-class guys look at what's befallen their unlucky counterparts and cling desperately to demeaning jobs in order to feed their families. But despair is not limited to financial concerns. Each of these stories offers some combination of the following: murders, suicides, untimely death, hauntings by various ghosts, beatings, slavery and exploitation both sexual and otherwise, and plenty of all-purpose bitterness and cruelty.

Yet Saunders's quaint way with a euphem-ism--"in bad decline"--is a tip-off that he's not your typical doomsayer out to shock. In the title story, a teenager at the park is murdered and has his hand lopped off by a wacko security goon. A meek CivilWarLand exec is forced to bury the appendage: "All night I have bad dreams about severed hands. In one I'm eating chili and a hand comes out of my bowl and gives me the thumbs-down. I wake up with a tingling wrist." Like any satirist worth his salt, Saunders has a thin-lipped grimness leavened with a wry sense of humor; what's most important (and improbable) is that beneath it all there's a swollen heart of a romantic who aches for a saner, nicer world.

Take "Isabelle," the most marvelous and wrenching story of the bunch. An old-timey working class neighborhood succumbs to a panic-sell and white flight such that "even the nuns went racist"; still, the kids have their fun, which for the protagonist and his brother Leo means spying on a handicapped girl they nickname Boneless, and her incredibly loving father, a cop known as Split Lip. Another kid is "a sweetheart who in biology had hired Earl Dimps to carve up his fetal pig," and who, after the murder of his brother, becomes "the world's youngest wino." After one of numerous tragedies, the narrator and Leo seek refuge: "We ran to the train tracks and lay on our backs, sick in our guts as the guiltless stars wheeled by. After no dance would we look up at them happily now. Norris's soul whizzed through the highgrass. Chills broke out on my arms." Throughout its scant seven pages, "Isabelle" perfectly balances economy and detail, delicately intertwines good and evil. And when the story ends and "the sum total of sadness in the world is less than it would have been," that one crumb of hope is enough to make you cry.

Most of the stories, however, while heavier on the laughs, are more along the lines of "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," which culminates in an almost literal battle between love and hate, with love definitely down for the count. Jeffrey, the titular character of "The 400-Pound CEO," endures constant ridicule and humiliation in his job at Humane Raccoon Alternatives (whose extermination methods actually involve tire irons and a dumping pit across the highway from the office). The guilt-wracked narrator of "The Wavemaker Falters" is haunted nightly by the ghost of Clive, a kid he accidentally mulched with the wavemaking machine he operates at a theme park; "I'll leave the door open," he tells Clive's dad, who calls to say he's coming over to kill him. 90-year-old Mary, of "Downtrodden Mary's Failed Campaign of Terror," is another beleaguered theme park employee whose sole satisfaction is sabotaging her boss's supposed coup, a hapless cow with surgically installed Plexiglas panels to showcase his digestive system.

Besides "Isabelle," the only other story that proffers a thin slice of hope is the novella "Bounty," kind of a Huck Finn meets Candide in a mutagenic America inhabited by Normals and Flaweds. Unlike Saunders's other protagonists, Cole, a young man with claws instead of toes, willingly leaves his relatively cushy job at BountyLand, a medieval-style resort that distributes regular, morale-boosting doses of cocaine to its Flawed employees. He's searching for his beloved sister Connie, who's run off to the West--rabid anti-Flawed territory--with a rich Client, a Normal. Inspired by some of this age's uglier and more disturbing trends, Saunders goes hog wild here. People are trying to scrape together a buck selling anything from raccoon-on-a-stick to moist towelettes to custom-crafted GlamorDivans. Teenaged boys with "killer delts" join militias out to round up Flaweds. McDonald's have been taken over by extremist Guilters and their Church of Appropriate Humility and a former Safeway houses a brothel where PPAs (Personal Pleasure Associates) service ARs (Affection Recipients) with drive-thru hand jobs.

But Saunders's unabashed nostalgia and idealism persists among all the horrifically humorous conjurings: "I can't help but feel I was born in the wrong age," laments Cole. "What I wouldn't give to be drinking a Dr. Pepper while driving an Edsel and listening to Muzak on a Victrola. What I wouldn't give to be allowed to procreate in a home of my own and toss a ball around with my offspring before heading off for a night on the town with my well-coiffed wife." Most of his stories (including one in the January 22 issue of The New Yorker) have an ideal, however piecemeal, along the lines of the married-w/kids-&-a-good-if-unglamorous-job thing; it's sometimes hard to believe this sincere, regular-guy, first-person perspective isn't cynical. Yet Saunders himself is on the young side of middle age, it seems, with a wife and kids and a white-collar day job.

One could find kernels of a moderate conservatism here, but it's doubtful that Saunders's fiction would find favor with many of this country's truly regular guys and gals. Jeffrey, the 400-Pound CEO's creed--"I have a sense that God is unfair and preferentially punishes his weak, his dumb, his fat, his lazy. I believe he takes more pleasure in his perfect creatures, and cheers them on like a brainless Dad as they run roughshod over the rest of us"--does seem reflective of both Saunders's outlook, and the kind of flip-flop Christian values have taken of late. Yet the protagonists in "Isabelle" and "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz" do find happiness and a sense of purpose in caring for someone less fortunate, a rare shred of redemption that seems like a shaft of heaven- sent light.

Amid so much unremitting bleakness, Saunders's humor is the bait that keeps you turning the pages. This author has a keen ear for an easy, conversational style, knocked slightly awry. He mines a rich source in subverting clich├ęs (people run amok, maws gape, and so forth), but can also get away with phrases like "overcome with love" and "sick with rage." Contemporary lingo is plundered for commercialist epigrams, pop-psych and self-help jargon, and business-ish mumbo-jumbo: "Respect. That's the quantity I hope to imbibe to you during the confab that is to follow this present preface I'm extolling," asserts a theme park boss. Everywhere absurdity gets taken to its limit, as with "Bounty"'s undercover bureaucrats who tax people for eating roadside weeds, classified as "a governmental agricultural product. If you eat a weed you're required to utilize a handy pre-addressed envelope to mail in your fee. The envelopes are kept in roadside racks that people keep pulling up to burn for firewood."

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is already down in my book as one of the best books of the year. Saunders manages to sidestep moralism, even while complementing his bleak vision with a genuine idealism, and mixing up hilarious perversities with heartfelt pleas for a more humane world. It makes for a strange and somewhat bitter brew that deserves a large readership, but don't expect CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (whose stories were first published in The New Yorker, Harper's, and elsewhere) to break onto any best-seller lists. As it's been noted in recent years, smart satire, along with fiction in general, has become an unfortunately neglected art form--precisely at a time when we could all use more of it.


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