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Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

In his latest stories, savage satirist Saunders discovers a newly dynamic and emotional sense of humanity


By George Saunders. Random House, $26.

Imagine a world in which poverty-stricken immigrants are displayed on manicured lawns as status symbols and ex-cons are made to prove that love is only as strong as the latest drug. Now imagine that the creator of these difficult visions, satirical short-story writer George Saunders, has discovered he has, um, feelings? Don’t worry, the author isn’t abandoning the savage wit found in earlier collections such as Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation; consider his new Tenth of December a fling with fragility.

In the title story, a nerdy kid convinces himself to cross an icy lake to help a suicidal older man, only to end up indebted to that man. The middle-aged, misanthropic subject of “Al Roosten”—who will feel familiar to fans of Sam Lipsyte’s antiheroes—gets revenge after making a fool of himself at a fund-raising auction. A lost and violent veteran tries to adjust to civilian life with his family in “Home.”

Saunders’s dazzling style—the intricate fantasies, zippy locution and playful tone that matches the pluck or perturbation of his protagonists—is also on display here. But this time, he ultimately favors the heart over the head. Familiar preoccupations arise—the enslaving nature of consumer culture and the many other quiet horrors underlying Western affluence—but where in the past Saunders might have quietly slipped in a moral, now a twist of fate reveals his characters’ unforeseen vulnerabilities. Yes, a touch of the velocity and ferocity of the author’s prose has been sacrificed to achieve this new resonance. But whereas Saunders’s previous works have only pulsed with hope, Tenth of December locates a new and striking humanity.

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