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An Endangered Species

You should have stood up to Dad years ago…. I hate the thought of you losing this house. You’re like one of those Indian women being thrown alive onto her husband’s funeral pyre. A suttee.

In the Gloaming is a collection of ten beautifully composed, quietly narrated short stories reminiscent of the stories of love and loss of the late Alice Adams. Each story exudes the gravitas of a radically distilled novel; though, in well-crafted short story fashion, we begin near the story’s climax, we are brought through flashbacks into the protagonists’ lives, and come to assess them in ways they aren’t able to assess themselves. The much-admired title story, which was selected by John Updike for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories of the 20th Century, is a love story of a special kind: the emotional experience of a woman who discovers that her gay son who is dying of AIDS is “the love of her life,” and not her husband, who has been largely absent from his family but made into a “benign image” concocted by the wife herself, “a character of her invention, with a whole range of postulated emotions.” This elegiac but toughly unsentimental story is utterly convincing in its depiction of the dying son’s last days, and the urgency both mother and son feel about exploring their new, romantic discovery of each other: “You’re where I come from,” the son, Laird, says. “I need to know about you.” Their conversations become increasingly candid:

I’m asking about your love life,” she said. “Did you love, and were you loved in return?”

Yes.”

I’m glad.”

That was easy,” he said.

Oh, I’ve gotten very easy, in my old age.”

Does Dad know about this?” His eyes were twinkling wickedly.

Don’t be fresh,” she said.

So skillfully is “In the Gloaming” written, so subtle the presentation of the mother’s mental state, that the reader comes to share in her delusion that the afflicted Laird will somehow not die, and that their journey of discovery will continue indefinitely, as if the bond between mother and son weren’t predicated entirely upon Laird’s fatal illness. If Laird were well, the last place he’d be would be in Wynnemoor, in his parents’ home. Yet the mother can console herself, in the twilight, “the gloaming,” of their life together:

How many mothers spend so much time with their thirty-three-year-old sons? She had as much of him now as she’d had when he was an infant—more, because she had the memory of the intervening years as well, to round out her thoughts about him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously remarked that if a writer begins with an individual, he may end up with a type; if he begins with a type, he will end up with nothing. Alice Elliott Dark would seem to refute this theory by presenting us with characters who, at first glance, appear to be familiar types: the callow young husband/adulterer in “Close” who makes a pilgrimage to his boyhood home, quixotically seeking a sign to help him with his life; the boastful bachelor in “The Tower” who falls deeply in love, for the first time, with a young woman who is the daughter of a former mistress and who might, or might not, be his own daughter.

In the volume’s concluding story, “Watch the Animals,” a suburban stereotype named Diana Frick (one of Wynnemoor’s “moneyed blue bloods, the descendant of a signer”), dying of cancer and needing to find homes for her numerous rescued animals, is confronted by stereotypical gossipy neighbors who ponder the older woman’s behavior, which differs so markedly from their own:

[Diana’s animals] were not purebreds, or even respectable mutts. She collected creatures that others had thrown away, the beasts left on the side of the highway or confiscated from horrific existences by her contacts at the ASPCA; the maimed sprung from labs, the exhausted retired from dog tracks; the unlucky blamed for the sins of the household and made to pay with their bodies…. Immigrants from hell, she called them….

She took these animals that otherwise would have ended up euthanized at best, and she trained them and groomed them and nursed them and fed them home-cooked foods until—we had to admit—they bore a resemblance to the more fortunate of their species. They behaved, as far as we could tell. But from a practical standpoint, could they ever be considered truly trustworthy? Who knew what might set them off?

Yet these clucking old biddies reveal themselves, finally, as fully human too. “Watch the Animals” is a perfect ending for the elegiac stories of In the Gloaming, bringing together Dark’s commingled themes of impending loss and unreasonable hope. The Wynnemoor community embraces Diana Frick only when she signals to them that she is as vulnerable as they, and as mortal.

If George Saunders’s hyperkinetic dark-fantasist-satirist prose in the mode of Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme, and DeLillo is an acquired taste, it’s a taste quickly acquired. This master of low-mimetic lunacy can make you laugh aloud even as you wince at his deadpan excess and the manic, compulsive syntax that mimics, as in a ghastly echolalia, those thoughts we might consider our own, and “normal.” There’s an admirable boldness, too, in the way in which Saunders recycles motifs (America as theme park, for instance) from story to story. The six talky, bizarre tales of his new collection, Pastoralia, are very like the seven talky, bizarre tales of his first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996); like the entrepreneurial zealots whom he satirizes, Saunders exploits his material with slight variants, improvising upon a formula of stream-of-consciousness black humor that sometimes, but not often, spills over into sheer comic-book silliness but occasionally, as in the new collection, engages us unexpectedly.

Saunders’s brain-damaged and frequently physically handicapped characters will perhaps be more amusing to readers with no qualms about mental retardation, autism, senile dementia, and physical disabilities, but it should be kept in mind that satirists from Aristophanes and Rabelais to Swift and Céline and Lenny Bruce have been outrageously cruel, and our current politically incorrect humor is especially so:

The first great act of love I ever witnessed was Split Lip bathing his handicapped daughter. We were young, innocent of mercy, and called her Boneless or Balled-Up Gumby for the way her limbs were twisted and useless…. She was scared of the tub, so to bathe her Split Lip covered [her] couch with a tarp and caught the runoff in a bucket.

(“Isabelle,” in CivilWarLand)

From Pastoralia, the final minutes of a child named Cody who’s afflicted with a mysterious “nosehole”:

The boy on the bike flew by the chink’s house, and the squatty-body’s house, and the house where the dead guy had rotted for five days, remembering that the chink had once called him nasty, the squatty-body had once called the cops when he’d hit her cat with a lug nut on a string, the chick in the dead guy’s house had once asked if he, Cody, ever brushed his teeth. Someday when he’d completed the invention of his special miniaturizing ray he would shrink their houses and flush them down the shitter while in tiny voices all three begged for some sophisticated mercy, but he would only say, Sophisticated? When were you ever sophisticated to me?

…But then oh crap he was going too fast and missed it [running over a neighbor’s hose], and the announcers in the booth above the willow gasped in pleasure at his sudden decisive decision to swerve across the newly sodded lawn of the squatty-body’s house. His bike made a trough in the sod and went humpf over the curb, and as the white car struck him the boy and the bike flew together in a high comic arc across the street and struck the oak on the opposite side with such violence that the bike wrapped around the tree and the boy flew back into the street.

The America of Saunders’s uninflected prose has become a virtual-reality America of theme parks, amusement enterprises, and private habitations like Sea Oak (“no sea and no oak, just a hundred subsidized apartments and a rear view of FedEx”), where characters watch TV programs like How My Child Died Violently and The Worst That Could Happen. They live with physically impaired relatives, whom they are obliged to care for, with limited resources. And try to earn a decent living! The hapless narrator of the title story plays a prehistoric cave dweller in a theme park, but business is falling off; his mate keeps forgetting her scripted role, jeopardizing both their jobs by speaking English (“No freaking goat?” “What a bunch of shit”). Nor is romance a likely possibility for the cave couple:

She’s in there washing her armpits with a washcloth. The room smells like her, only more so. I add the trash from her wicker basket to my big white bag. I add her bag of used feminine items to my big white bag. I take three bags labeled Caution Human Refuse from the corner and add them to my big pink bag labeled Caution Human Refuse….

She’s fifty and has large feet and sloping shoulders and a pinched little face and chews with her mouth open.

As if aping primitive cognition, the title story, “Pastoralia” is excruciatingly long, and slow, as a centipede is slow, moving its legs in deliberate sections, unhurried. Here is a purposefully clumsy prose that presents a considerable obstacle to the reader, yet the effort is usually worth it, as with the effort required to get through the companion stories “Winky,” “The Barber’s Unhappiness,” and “The Falls,” in which the unattractive, seemingly moronic characters work themselves up to decisive acts, or almost. “Winky” is the funniest, its opening scene a parody of an EST-like self-help seminar held in a Hyatt, under the direction of Tom Rodgers himself, founder of the Seminars:

Now, if someone came up and crapped in your nice warm oatmeal, what would you say? Would you say: “Wow, super, thanks, please continue crapping in my oatmeal”? Am I being silly? I’m being a little silly. But guess what, in real life people come up and crap in your oatmeal all the time—friends, co-workers, loved ones, even your kids, especially your kids!—and that’s exactly what you do. You say, “Thanks so much!” You say, “Crap away!” You say, and here my metaphor breaks down a bit, “Is there some way I can help you crap in my oatmeal?”

All the protagonist, Neil-Neil, wants is the courage to tell his mentally retarded sister Winky to move out of the apartment they’ve been sharing for too long, but when he’s put to the test Neil-Neil fails. Of course: “He wasn’t powerful, he wasn’t great, he was just the same as everybody else.”

In their original settings in the columns of The New Yorker, amid glossy advertisements for high-priced merchandise, George Saunders’s goofy riffs on the travails of freaks and losers who sometimes manage to rise, only just barely, to the level of the human, suggest the voyeuristic fascination/revulsion of those eighteenth-century European aristocrats who visited asylums to be entertained by the spectacle of lunatics. Yet Pastoralia is less stridently dystopian than CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and the author’s vision, if that’s an appropriate term, is less cruel. At the end of the final story, “The Falls,” a man is drawn to attempt the rescue of two girls in a sinking canoe, as if David Lynch and Norman Rockwell were suddenly conflated: “…Making a low sound of despair in his throat he kicked off his loafers and threw his long ugly body out across the water.”

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