We sped south on Cicero Avenue. Through Oak Lawn, Alsip, Crestwood, a flat, aging strip-malled landscape of crumbling pizza joints and ancient tanning parlors, fast-food chains, tile-supply stores and —
"Wow!" I shouted, "Look! The Brazen Head!"
George Saunders, the best short story writer in America, sat in the passenger seat.
"Whoa!" he said, craning his head around as I passed what appeared to be a restaurant, "What the hell is a Brazen Head?" He picked up my recorder: "The Brazen Head — be sure to use The Brazen Head." It was the kind of vaguely satiric, improbable (though not impossible) name that might appear in a George Saunders story, accompanied by a (faux) trademark symbol, perhaps. His story "Escape from Spiderhead," for instance, in his wildly acclaimed (and lavishly hyped) new story collection "Tenth of December," is about a teenager forced to test drugs that chemically instill feelings of love; the story includes such fictional products as BlissTyme™ and Darkenfloxx™, neither of which sound that improbable. Particularly alongside "Skype" in a sentence.
"George has always had a talent for that kind of language," said writer Tobias Wolff, best known for "This Boy's Life," who taught Saunders in the creative writing program at Syracuse University in the mid-1980s. "Corporate language, aspirational rhetoric, military jargon, names. He has this knack for hearing and appropriating the way the world sounds."
Saunders and I continued down Cicero, toward Oak Forest, where he grew up. He returns now and then to visit relatives, he explained. I pointed out a sign: "Illinois Bus Company." Its motto: "A bus for every occasion." He smiled. "Now, I don't think that's literally true! A bus for a frontal lobotomy?" he said. "I just doubt that."
We drove on.
He had not returned to this area for many years, he said, maybe a half-dozen. He watched intersections, lampposts and apartment complexes flip by, and delivered a kind of impromptu memoir/essay on place:
"Now, that spot on the right, that budget motel there, that was The Pink Cloud, one of those sleazy rendezvous places. I love that name. The river near here? The channel? The Cal-Sag. As in Calumet-Saganashkee. I love that too." He said it again: "Cal-Sag." Then he continued, gesturing ahead: "This used to be Howell Airport, but they cashed in at some point. I remember from here you could see Piper Cubs in a long line on the runway. My first date was at a mall that was here.
"Wow, there is a lot of signage, huh? Do people still call this ' Chicagoland'? Sitting in the back of the car on the way to my grandmother's, I loved how it was all Chicagoland, so continuous. You watched Chicagoland scrawl by. That had a huge impact, but, look, if you're Faulkner returning to Oxford, Miss., the same people are always hanging around the same places. And this is all just different stuff. Nostalgia is, 'Hey, remember the other mall that used to be there?'"
The story of George Saunders is two stories.
The first and best-known begins with "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," his first book of stories, published in 1996, two weeks before David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest." It was heralded, along with Wallace's classic, as the arrival of a new satiric, absurdist, semi-futuristic contemporary fiction that captured the Way We Live Now, no less than the missing links between the postmodernism of Donald Barthelme and the pseudo-sci-fi of Kurt Vonnegut. Plus, both Wallace and Saunders came out of Illinois. Asked now if he saw more than coincidence there, Saunders said he's not sure, but "we felt comfortable with each other, possibly out of some shared Midwestern sense that any intellectual ambition should be cloaked in some outer modesty."
They were friends, and Wallace once sent Saunders' daughter, then the only female on a boys baseball team, a box of baseballs with instructions such as "To be hit out of the park." They mingled at Syracuse University, where Wallace lived and Saunders has taught since the mid-'90s. But Wallace was the superstar.
A couple of decades, four short-story collections, a book of essays, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, several late-night talk show appearances (Letterman, Colbert) and a blurb from the elusive Thomas Pynchon later, those comparisons with Wallace (who killed himself in 2008, and with whom Saunders said there was no rivalry) seem shortsighted, as do descriptions of Saunders as a satirist.
"George is no realist, as many writers from Chicago are," said Chicago writer Stuart Dybek, whose work Saunders credits with introducing him to contemporary fiction. "But there's a tragic humor to his work that is not satiric. Rather, it's so familiar and Midwestern, you get the sense this guy lived in the real world and survived on imagination and comedy."
In a Saunders story, orphans get sold off to marketing firms and male strippers are haunted. In the title story of "Tenth of December," a man dying of cancer goes to a park, removes his clothes and decides to freeze to death, to save his family the ordeal of a long sickness; then he meets a sad young man who forces him to re-evaluate. And in the title story of "Pastoralia," his 2000 collection, a couple portray cave people in a human zoo, managing their lives during 15-minute smoke breaks.
Writer Ben Marcus, with whom Saunders has been friends for decades, said: "In the past 20 years, the division between writers who write what it's like to live our lives and postmodern writers who make up weird imaginative stuff — that divide has grown wider. But George, he's like a natural synthesizer of diverging spaces. I think that's his achievement, and not a small one: He writes about dreamlike places while staying committed to what it feels like to be a person in this world, right now."
Which is partly why Andy Ward, executive editor at Random House, when asked about the rapturous response to "Tenth of December" — The New York Times proclaimed it "the best book you'll read this year" the first week of January, Saunders' public appearances (including at Lincoln Hall last month) sold out quickly, and the book debuted at No. 3 on Amazon.com's best-seller list — said he sees "George poised to push way past what had been a dedicated, somewhat confined group of admirers and famous writers." The world looks like Cicero Avenue.
Indeed, the America in Saunders' stories is a surreal, familiar horizon of gaudy signs, dehumanizing office parks and theme restaurants punctuated by a stray pond or patch of woods. It's not hard to imagine CivilWarLand, the theme park in "CivilWarLand," as a part of Chicagoland, off Cicero, in lonesome disarray. Ward, a former GQ editor, said he once asked Saunders to write a piece on Dubai because "a manufactured microworld in a desert where hotels pipe in fragrances and tunnels lead to indoor ski slopes sounds almost like George in real life." His situations are surreal, the writing often implacable, influenced by his brief time as a technical writer for a Rochester, N.Y., engineering company — Saunders said its daily corporate speak was "bleeding into my writing until it felt poetic." And his settings appear to be nowhere and everywhere.
When I said to Deborah Treisman, Saunders' longtime editor at The New Yorker, which has steadily published his work since the early '90s, that his stories seem to take place nowhere, she said: "No, it is somewhere. It's not our universe, but a parallel one where things happen in slightly different ways. I call it GeorgeLand."
And we all live in GeorgeLand now.
But what about the deeply felt empathy in his stories? The tenderness (that has grown more pronounced lately)? The surprisingly palpable sense of gratefulness? The suggestion that nowhere is somewhere?
Where does that come from?
The other story of Saunders is about a guy who, 54 now, once knew the South Side and its suburbs intuitively. He had modest literary ambitions into his late 20s, attended the Colorado School of Mines, studied geophysical engineering. He spent time prospecting for oil companies in the Sumatran jungles, using his downtime to "grope my way toward being well-read." He remained an uncertain writer for a while. Even after being accepted into the creative writing program at Syracuse, Wolff said, "the big thing with George was getting him over a sense of being a fish out of water surrounded by more classically trained English majors."
As we drove on, Saunders said he spent a lot of time trying to write as though he had sprung from somewhere else, anywhere else: "When I was in my 20s, I would think about Oak Forest and go, 'If only I had grown up in Winesburg, Ohio! Then I would have something to say!' I was really influenced by Hemingway then and would begin all my stories with somebody thinking something, then they would stand around and brood. But growing up here wasn't like Hemingway, and what was I going to write: 'Nick walked into the Wal-Mart'?
"I wanted to be one of those writers alive to their times. Which meant you had lived a life, you did a bunch of cool (expletive), came from a cool place, wrote about it. That's what being a writer meant. Later, of course, you see that (Sherwood Anderson's) Winesburg is fictional and that suburbs have (vagaries), same as anywhere. So I may not have had a gothic childhood, but childhood makes its own gothicity."
Saunders pointed to a restaurant on Cicero: "That burrito joint. That was my father's. Pull over there."
Saunders' father owned this restaurant on Cicero in the '70s. It was a Chicken Unlimited then, and Saunders was a delivery boy. Saunders slid into the booth across from me. "I drove a '69 Camaro, listened to the Allman Brothers on my eight-track, looked like a '70s guy, loved delivering food," he said. "There was this rotating cast of characters. I would drop in on 20 households a day, and a lot of the older guys would want to keep you there to give advice. There was a security guard who would come into the restaurant and tell us about being falsely accused of masturbating at a Fotomat. Then you would learn he was fired for mistakenly arresting another security guard. Then you'd hear he was taken to a mental institution. The impulse is — a strange guy.
"But my second impulse became, how hard this person's life must be. There was this woman who would order a Pepsi and a pack of cigarettes, and we'd get four orders a night from her, same order every time. I would go to her apartment, and you want to sneer at this woman. But walk into her home, and she's old and shaking and has nobody to talk to. Get exposed to that over a period, your empathy can't help but kick in."
Saunders has a graying beard and receding hair that suggests either a Civil War re-enactor or Colonel Sanders. He is earnest, excited, speaks fast, and the first thing friends say is that he is really like that: empathetic, way beyond common decency. Chicago writer Adam Levin, whom Saunders mentored at Syracuse, said: "He has that Bill Clinton thing where you feel like the center of the universe when he talks to you, and it's no put-on, because I think George believes to give a person your attention is to honor them."
This modesty is not forced.
Earlier in the day, we drove to Chicago's Gage Park neighborhood, where Saunders lived until he was 5. I had asked to see his first house. He directed me past schoolchildren on their way home and told me to pull into an alley. I crept along somewhat confused until he pointed to a garage and asked me to stop. "OK, I think this is it," he said.
The Saunders family (mom, dad, three children) lived here for several months, in a refurbished garage, before his father got a job for the J.W. Petersen Coal Co. in Chicago, eventually becoming the vice president. Saunders insists he did not have a hardscrabble life, just a thoughtful one. He told me about his father being violently mugged and yet coming home "with this gleeful air, because now he had a story." He told me about how his mother, knowing that Saunders felt bad one holiday season for bringing home a pathetic Christmas tree, drilled dozens of holes into the trunk and glued in additional branches until it resembled a traditional tree.
His parents, who are in their 70s, eventually moved to Texas and bought a motor home; when that home was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina (they lost everything), they bought another motor home. When I asked his mother, Joan, for dirt on her son, she said, "Oh, I would love to, but Georgie's a nice kid."
Saunders and his wife, Paula, whom he met in the creative writing program at Syracuse, have become practicing Buddhists (he won't discuss it). He was raised Catholic, though, and as a child attended St. Damian School in Oak Forest. We sat in its large empty parking after it had closed for the day.
He told me: "Once, I had a very strong feeling of transcendence because of this place. I had this feeling that Jesus was substantial. I don't know how to say it without sounding like an idiot, but I remember thinking that I would see how long I could keep this feeling. I literally felt it leaving me, and then the next day I was me again."
We sat in silence.
"I once saw a priest kissing a nun! Oh, yeah, I got out of class early because I was doing a reading at Mass, and I walked into this room quietly and I saw the nun against the vestibule, and the priest had his leg pressed between her legs. I backed out so quietly, and they never knew I was even there. I didn't tell anybody for 10 years. It didn't mean they were hypocrites. It just meant they were human beings."
Later, Mary Karr, the best-selling memoirist ("The Liars' Club"), who has taught at Syracuse alongside Saunders for decades, told me: "The thing about George is he is that rare person who is interested in being kind. It's why he doesn't suffer from the vanity that infects other writers — this spiritual side. I knew David Wallace a long time, and he knew he was a genius, (Jonathan) Franzen knows he's a genius, but George is not interested in being a genius. He's in-the-moment, and everyone loves him. It's the bad thing about knowing George. You're always 'Ms. Also Appearing.' Nobody gives a (expletive) if you show up for dinner."
By the time we reached his old neighborhood, it was dark. We parked outside his old house, a humble suburban split-level. The sidewalk in front was icy. He was the prom king, he mumbled. But, he said in the same breath, he was deeply prudish: "I was a straight arrow, a control freak. I didn't do drugs or drink, and this was the '70s. I didn't like the loss of control. Which isn't exactly right, because I didn't know what happened when you did drugs. We had a neighborhood guy who once asked me if I would sneak beers. I said no. He said I would. I said no. He bet me: If I didn't sneak a beer before 18, he would give me $500. And he did."
How did he know you didn't? I asked.
"Because I would go to this restaurant, Lum's. They cooked hot dogs in beer. So one time I told him that I think I lost that bet because I ate one of those hot dogs. And he was like, 'Uh, George, no, you're fine …'"
I asked why he became a writer.
He said he didn't know.
The best he could come up with were influences and opportunities, few of them literary: Joe and Sheri Lindbloom, high school teachers who helped him get into college; the comedy of Steve Martin. He told me about how, after Sumatra, his aunt and uncle let him live rent-free in their Oak Forest home and write. He wrote and worked as a convenience store clerk and a roofer. And before he had a story published, he had lived a life.
Which, ironically, is not always the case with many of the prospective students who apply to be in his class at Syracuse, said Sarah Harwell, associate director of the creative writing program: "The number of people we see who want to write like George or just mention him in their cover letters, it's astonishing. He's become an influence on an entire generation of writers now, and they can do the funny names, but they rarely grasp how moralistic he is. They imitate everything about him but the compassion and the gratitude."
We got back in the car to leave. There was no traffic, no people, not a flurry spiraled in the streetlights.
Saunders looked around and said, "My little kingdom," then he added, absent-mindedly, "I think about this place when I look at my stories and notice some tiny overlay between the contemporary and nostalgic. That's old-school Chicago trying to break through. And when I notice, it's here, right here, coming through."
Then we drove off.
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