The Spades just keep coming! For this week’s Deal Me In story, I drew the Jack of Spades – “Sea Oak” by George Saunders. This story can be found in the collection Pastoralia, but I read it at online at Barcelona Review.
Well then. Well. I’m not at all sure how to approach discussing this story. Let me start by saying that I really, really liked it. I must immediately read more George Saunders. Having said that, let me also say that a great many people would probably have a very different reaction than I did. Saunders’s writing is strange and hilarious and gross and surreal and wonderful and sarcastic and poignant and horrible all at once. If you don’t mind the strange and gross and sarcastic and horrible, then by all means go right out and snap up some Saunders for the hilarious and surreal and wonderful and poignant bits.
The title “Sea Oak” refers to the name of the run-down, dangerous neighborhood in which our nameless protagonist lives with his two ostensibly adult sisters, each with her own toddler son, and their Aunt Bernie. The sisters are, again ostensibly, studying for their GEDs; Aunt Bernie, an eternal optimist, works at a drugstore, and the narrator works partially clothed at an aviator themed establishment called Joysticks – a sort of male-staffed Hooters. The family is in the deadest of dead-ends. Well, at least that’s how they think of their lot until Aunt Bernie passes away, proving that things can always get worse. And what happens next proves that worse can always get…worse still.
It may sound bleak, but it’s satire, and it’s hilarious. The world of “Sea Oak” falls somewhere between the Jerry Springer landscape of modern America and the future shown in the movie Idiocracy. (I really love this film. Don’t judge me.) There is a great deal of social satire in this story, yet as goofy as it is on the surface, there is a lot of heart underneath, as well.
To say anything more specific about the story would spoil it. It may sound ridiculous, but Saunders isn’t highly lauded and beloved for nothing. (His most recent collection was granted the Paris Review Best of the Best for 2013. He won the National Magazine Award in 1994, 1996, 2000 and 2004, the PEN/Malamud in 2013 and a MacArthur grant in 2006 and has been a finalist for every award under the sun. This funny guy isn’t kidding around.) Saunders would appeal to readers of Christopher Moore or Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams or Tom Robbins. He is frequently compared to Kurt Vonnegut, so fans of that author – get thee to a book vendor. He’s an excellent contemporary satirist, and I hardily recommend him to anyone who enjoys a good bit of critique wrapped up in dark humor.