CivilWarLand in Bad Decline “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” Summary
by George Saunders

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“CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” Summary

The narrator of the story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” an unnamed man with a routine tendency to defer to the authority of others, is a mid-level employee at a theme park called CivilWarLand. He works as a special assistant to the park’s owner, Mr. Alsuga, and is often responsible for solving the unusual problems that arise during the park’s operation. This promotion is recent—he worked as a “verisimilitude inspector” prior to the events in the story, during which he was primarily responsible for maintaining the historical accuracy of the park’s various attractions. By secretly leveraging the stories he heard from the McKinnons, a family of Civil War ghosts still haunting the property, the narrator made enough improvements to the park to eventually be granted his higher position.

The park itself is an ersatz recreation of life in the United States during the Civil War era. Despite its historical inaccuracies and evident state of disrepair, the narrator cares about the park and considers it one of the safest remaining places in the otherwise dystopian society in which he lives—he takes his children there for Halloween, noting that “the Park’s the only safe place to trick-or-treat anymore.” It’s also one of the only places he can find reliable employment. “I think about quitting,” he notes after one particularly degrading encounter with a potential investor, “then I think about my last degrading batch of résumés. Two hundred send-outs and no nibbles.”

When the park becomes overrun with the same dangerous gangs that threaten the world outside its gates, Mr. Alsuga asks the narrator to see whether any of their employees might be qualified to take on the role of security. After an unsuccessful first attempt to deputize a reenactor named Ned, the two settle on a new hire with a criminal past: Sam, a veteran who was removed from Vietnam for “excessive acts of violence.” The narrator is anxious—”I express reservations at arming an alleged war criminal and giving him free rein in a family-oriented facility”—but Mr. Alsuga insists. “If we don't get our act together,” he tells the narrator, “there won't be any family-oriented facility left in a month.”

The turmoil inside the park mirrors the narrator’s turmoil at home—his wife, Evelyn, is constantly complaining about his low pay, denigrating his accomplishments, and calling him a “bootlicker.” When the tension rises, the narrator employs a de-escalation technique called “Hatred Abatement Breathing” to control his temper. As he becomes more and more mired in solving the park’s gang problem, Evelyn becomes less and less patient with his perceived deficiencies, and their relationship begins to suffer.

When one of the roving gangs kidnaps a teenage girl, Sam is pressed into action and makes a quick, if violent, recovery—the girl is safe, and six gang members are dead. When the authorities arrive, Sam hides in the woods to avoid punishment for his vigilantism. Before long, word about the park’s fearsome one-man security force spreads, and the gangs retreat from the area. For a time all is well, but soon it becomes clear that Sam’s sense of criminal scale does not mirror the park administration’s. When a teenage boy steals a handful of candy from a park shop, Sam tracks him down and kills him. The narrator learns this when he finds a severed hand on his chair surrounded by penny candy. At Mr. Alsuga’s insistence, he buries the hand and keeps quiet, consumed by guilt.

Soon after, Sam’s overzealousness becomes a problem yet again. He attacks a roving gang and in the process nearly shoots the narrator’s young son Howie in error. No longer answering to Mr. Alsuga, Sam runs off into the woods. Before long, another park employee calls to give some bad news: there was no gang. Sam, trigger-happy as ever, has attacked a birdwatching group.

The narrator’s life rapidly begins to fall apart. Evelyn leaves, taking their...

(The entire section is 1,139 words.)