Book Review: 'Tenth Of December'

Critic Alan Chese reviews George Saunders' new story collection, Tenth of December.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

"Tenth of December" is the new collection of stories from MacArthur "genius" award-winner George Saunders. And our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, says it's a book for everyone from serious students of the American short story to those folks just looking for a good read.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Saunders is one of the most gifted and seriously successful comic short story writers working in America today. And his comedy, like most great comedy, is dark, as in "Victory Lap," the opening story, in which a suburban teenage girl finds herself a kidnap victim. She's snatched from her front yard by a deranged Christian-minded sex creep and then rescued by a nerdy, dreamy teenage neighbor.

Dreamy might also describe the state of mind of the pale adolescent hero of the title story, "Tenth of December." He's a boy who wanders off into the winter woods in a fantasy about a miniature race of creatures that live in the rock wall in the park near his house, and in his heart, a girl named Suzanne.

In this story, another one about inadvertent heroism, the boy follows a would-be suicide until he himself finds his own life in danger, and the suicide takes preventative measures. The surge of the characters' thoughts carry the reader along in this one as if on a relentless flowing stream.

We discover in several of the other stories it's not only teenagers in the spotlight here, though Saunders does teenagers just brilliantly. In "Escape from Spiderhead" and "The Semplica Girl Diaries," two longer pieces, Saunders tilts adult reality just a touch to the side.

"Escape from Spiderhead" and "The Semplica Girl Diaries," just two odd names to you now, but after you read the stories, you won't forget them. George Saunders is the real thing, the successor to such dark comedians of ordinary speech as Donald Barthelme and Grace Paley. He's a Vonnegutian in his soul and, paradoxically, a writer like no one but himself.

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CORNISH: That was Alan Cheuse reviewing the new story collection "Tenth of December" from George Saunders.

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