Author: George Saunders

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 2000

I read it: January 2017


I remember a short story writing class at ISU where one of the texts was The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, and the story “Sea Oak” from this collection was definitely in that book. I instantly recalled the title, but strangely had no recollection of the story itself. Which is odd considering it involves a protagonist who works at a sort of strip restaurant to support his extended family, and an aunt who dies and returns from the grave to offer harsh encouragement on changing your lot in life: “It’s the freaking American way—you start out in a dangerous craphole and work hard so you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous craphole.” If only all our dead relatives could give us a similarly well-timed kick in the pants.

“Sea Oak” explores a lot of the same areas as the title story, which also involves a guy at a less-than-ideal, weirdly public job who balances working hard to help his ailing son and trying to not rat out his underperforming coworker. Employment is huge for Saunders, and his characters never have quite enough of it to make ends meet, or at least can’t seem to properly balance life and home. The burden of family comes up not only in these two stories but also “Winky” and “The Barber’s Unhappiness.” Usually, although the main characters (often male) are riddled with flaws, they can’t bring themselves to be cruel in the end.

At only six stories, there is a lot of early DNA here for Saunders’ later stories. For example, if you combine the core elements of “The End of FIRPO in the World” and “The Falls” you basically construct “Tenth of December.” This is not a bad thing, as Saunders’ unique (and sad/funny) prose is inspiring even if it feels like you’ve heard this one before. Pastoralia is a slim yet solid starting point for the reader who wants a taste of this author’s bent and subtle brand of Americana.

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