Short-story writer George Saunders’s success is highly attributable to his faith in the farthest depths of his imagination and his ability to comment on American ideologies through biting satirical stories woven into hilarious voices. His two collections of short fiction and his children’s book earned him a place on The New Yorker’s list of twenty best American writers age forty and under and honors that include a nomination for the PEN/Hemingway Award.
Born in Amarillo, Texas, in 1958, Saunders relocated with his family to the South Side of Chicago, where his father worked for Peterson Oil and Coal, a company that supplied heating products to apartment buildings. Saunders named his parents as early influences. From his mother he inherited a West Texas sense of humor that applied invented voices to extensive, embellished scenarios. His father would often return from work with amusing and frightening stories about his day—his anecdotes included that of being rescued by an African American woman while being held at gunpoint against a Coke machine on the afternoon of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968—and spend Sunday evenings laughing himself to tears in front of the television while watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus. His father also encouraged reading and introduced his son to books by Niccolò Machiavelli, Upton Sinclair, and what would later become a great influence upon his unique sentence structure, Esther Forbes’s novel Johnny Tremain (1943).
After high school, Saunders relinquished his plans to join a rock band in order to attend the Colorado School of Mines. While pursuing his B.Sc. in geophysical engineering, he often put off studying for differential equations exams by reading Ernest Hemingway novels in the library. His early attempts at writing came in 1981 while working as a field geophysicist in Sumatra, Indonesia. In the jungle camp, he penned stories of the life he was currently living while emulating the prose of Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. Because of a stomach illness, he returned to the United States in 1983 and traveled the country while reading the works of Jack Kerouac. Saunders worked at odd jobs, such as slaughterhouse knuckle puller, convenience store clerk, and bar-band guitarist. Though he wrote on the side, it was not until he discovered Stuart Dybek’s stories about Chicago’s working class that he saw the writing life as a feasible vocation.
In 1986, after returning to Amarillo, he finally published a few new short stories. He was accepted into Syracuse University’s creative writing program, an admission that was considered a huge experiment by the faculty due, in part, to Saunders’s nonliterary background. There he met a former ballet dancer and fellow classmate named Paula, to whom he proposed three weeks later. Their first daughter, Caitlin, was born in 1988. Saunders went on to write late into the night after returning home from his job as a technical writer for the Food and Drug Administration, where he summarized the testing done on various animals. After he took a job as a technical writer for Radian Corporation, an environmental agency, in 1989, his second daughter, Alena, was born. It was during this time that Saunders turned toward his South Side of Chicago impulses and decided to let his natural humor take a major role in his work.
Saunders’s writing took a huge turn when, one day during a conference call at work, he came up with some poems recalling those of Dr. Seuss, which he found not only amusing to read but also much more fun to write than stories he had been composing in the vein of Hemingway, Kerouac, and Wolfe. Over the next...
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five years, persisting in this new mode, Saunders pilfered time from his employer, rather than his own late nights, to write what would later become his first volume of stories,CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, a collection that comments on the brutalities of capitalism by way of satirical, first-person narratives. The settings include a haunted historical theme park called CivilWarLand and a postapocalyptic theme park called Bountyland, where a class of malformed Americans called the Flawed work tedious jobs for their meals and a dose of drugs each day. Characters in the collection include a four-hundred-pound corporate executive officer and a boy with skin so delicate that he cannot be touched. The book earned Saunders a New York Times Notable Book of the Year Award and contention for the PEN/Hemingway Award in 1996.
In 1997, Saunders quit his technical writing job and started teaching in the Syracuse University creative writing program. In 2000, he published Pastoralia, a second collection of short stories, one that critics openly welcomed as more realistic than the first but not lacking the first book’s social bite and creativity. With the title story, Saunders revisits the theme park setting but focuses less on the ghosts and grotesqueness of characters and more on the tension that the central character faces. With this collection, Saunders continues to examine the United States’ suspicions, humiliations, and wishes for approval, where losers feel threatened by imaginary faults and transgressions.
The sophisticated comedy continued when Saunders joined with illustrator Lane Smith (who had illustrated Roald Dahl’s 1961 novel James and the Giant Peach) a year later to produce a fairy tale for both adults and children titled The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. The story is about a town wherein goat milk is the basis of the economy, and the three predictability-loving Frip families must deal, each day, with orange Gappers coming in from the sea to cover their goats. While the story basically focuses on the Golden Rule, it also deals with conservation and consumerism.
Many of George Saunders’s stories hint of the downfalls of capitalism, ideas arrived at through the various occupations in which he was able to view injustice handed out at the lowest level. With his bizarre interpretations and contrived creations, Saunders’s imagination and social views come together to project his humorous interpretations of certain American standards.