CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

by George Saunders
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CivilWarLand in Bad Decline Summary

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is a 1996 collection of six short stories and one novella by George Saunders.

  • In the title story, the narrator and his boss hire a dangerous private security guard to protect their historical theme park, CivilWarLand, from roving gangs.
  • In “The 400-Pound CEO,” Jeffrey, an outcast at the raccoon removal company where he works, accidentally kills his boss, then becomes CEO for a day.
  • In “Bounty,” a “Flawed” named Cole leaves Bounty-Land, the medieval theme park where he grew up, and embarks on a quest to rescue his sister in a dystopian version of the United States.


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Last Updated on September 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1028

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, published in 1996, is George Saunders’s first aggregate collection. It consists of six short stories and a novella, all of which deal heavily with themes of guilt, societal decay, and powerlessness. The stories are satirical and absurd, often told from the perspective of a narrator who might be considered an “underdog” in society. The protagonists regularly struggle against bureaucratic workplace restrictions, class- and caste-based social systems, and oppressive family expectations.

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The titular story, “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” centers on a narrator working at a historic amusement park. Tasked with increasing security as roving gangs threaten the park's revenue, he and the park’s owner, Mr. Alsuga, hire a mercenary veteran as private security.

Before long, the hired man is out of control—he rids the park of gangs but also executes a teenage boy for stealing candy from a refreshment shop and nearly shoots the narrator’s son while attacking a group of birdwatchers. The park is forced to close, and the narrator is despondent. When Mr. Alsuga sets the property ablaze to collect insurance money, he refuses to leave and resigns himself to death. Confronting his guilt as he waits for the flames, he meets the ghost of the teenager and then the mercenary himself. Before the narrator can die in the fire, the mercenary kills him.

In “Isabelle,” the second story, a boy witnesses a murder. Soon, through bad luck and familial obligation, he finds himself pressed into service caring for the murderer’s young disabled daughter. Despite the involuntary origins of the arrangement, the two grow close. When the murderer dies and his daughter is moved into a state care facility, the narrator continues to visit regularly.

When his brother, who also witnessed the murder, tells the daughter what happened, she is deeply distraught and distances herself from the family. Mourning the friendship after some time apart, the narrator visits one last time. Recognizing that he’s as important to her as she is to him, even after all they’ve been through, he finds a house with room for both of them and brings her home at last.

“The Wavemaker Falters,” the third story in the collection, focuses once again on an unnamed narrator coping with the guilt of a death on his conscience. In contrast to the loss troubling the protagonist in “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” this death is a direct result of the narrator's actions alone—he’s operating the controls at a wave pool and becomes distracted, and a young boy is crushed by the machinery.

When the guilt causes problems in the narrator’s marriage, his wife begins an affair with his supervisor. Haunted by visions of the boy he killed, he can only stand by and watch as she abandons him. Soon, the boy’s father comes to confront him with a gun, and the narrator thinks his life, too, is over. To his surprise, the boy’s father leaves. Left alone once more, the narrator wanders into a graveyard to sit and contemplates his losses.

In the fourth story, “The 400-Pound CEO,” a man named Jeffrey is working for a successful raccoon removal company. He’s a nice man, but his colleagues—especially his sadistic boss, Tim—are constantly mocking him for his weight and his laziness.

When Tim tries to attack an animal rights activist filming the company’s killing pit, Jeffrey intervenes. Before he realizes what he’s done, he’s killed Tim. To cover his tracks, he forges a note suggesting that Tim has run off and is leaving Jeffrey in charge. For one great night, Jeffrey experiences what it’s like to be CEO. But his time at the top is short-lived—before long, the police arrive, and Jeffrey is sent to prison.

In “Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz,” the fifth story in the collection, an unnamed widower operates a failing virtual reality franchise. Struggling to care for his elderly friend, Mrs. Ken Schwartz, he begins selling the most valuable thing he can find—her memories.

When Mrs. Schwartz begins to deteriorate, the narrator realizes he only has one resource left to sell. He addresses an envelope, prepares an invoice, pins a detailed set of instructions to his shirt, and makes one final transfer—his own memories, both good and bad.

“Downtrodden Mary’s Failed Campaign of Terror” is the final short story in the collection. Mary, a ninety-two-year-old woman working in a museum, is tired of nearly a century of being mistreated by those who hold power over her. To assert herself, she begins sabotaging an important museum exhibit called the “see-through cow.”

The cow is her supervisor’s pet project, which is exactly why she targets it—to jeopardize his career. When he learns of her subterfuge, he’s furious. and Mary is put out on the street without time to grab her coat. Freezing, hopeless, and now unemployed, she attempts to commit suicide by walking off the edge of a nearby pier. She’s rescued against her will by a group of Navy sailors, who deposit her on shore and celebrate their victory as she lies on the frozen sand.

Saunders completes his collection with “Bounty,” a novella about a brother and sister living in a deteriorating, dangerous version of the United States. They work together at a medieval-themed amusement park called Bounty-Land and are both “Flaweds,” a social class comprising people who exhibit a mutation. Cole, the narrator, has claws on his feet. Connie, his sister, has a small vestigial tail.

When Connie is sold to one of the park’s patrons, Cole decides to forgo the safety of Bounty-Land’s perimeter and sneak out to find her. Along the way, he encounters all sorts of trouble—he’s captured by slave traders, beaten, deemed a fugitive, briefly sold to a brothel, and courted by members of the Flawed resistance before ultimately finding his way to Connie’s farm. When he arrives, he’s surprised by what he finds: she is happy, and pregnant with her first child.

Determined to facilitate a better life for his new niece, Cole joins the resistance shortly after Connie gives birth.

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Chapter Summaries