'The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil'

Alan Cheuse reviews George Saunders's first full-length novel, a political satire called The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. At only 130 pages, including illustrations, the book is nonetheless a scathingly funny indictment of American politics.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Story writer George Saunders has just published his first full-length novel. It's a short one. It's called "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil." Alan Cheuse has a review.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

"The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil" checks in at only around 130 pages, including some illustrations. But let me be among the first to say that these are 130 delicious pages, making up a satire on politics and life that we haven't seen the likes of since Philip Roth's book-length excoriation of Tricky Dick Nixon that he called "Our Gang."

The story takes place in a special territory of Saunders' imagination populated by creatures with human motives and bodies like Calder assemblages. `It's one thing to be a small country,' the story begins, `but the country of Inner Horner was so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner.' This scarcely pleases the Outer Hornerites, who worry about elbow room in their own territory, and leads to the rise of a mean-spirited protofascist Outer Hornerite named Phil who cries out against invasion by the Inner Hornerites.

Phil assembles a small group of genial thugs to help him overthrow the current president and moves toward disassembling the offending Inner Hornerites and anyone else who stands in his way. Orating to his minions, Phil speaks in a pitch-perfect parody of American ambition and self-regard. `My people,' he shouts, `Who are we? We are an articulate people, yet a people of few words. We feel deeply, yet refrain from embarrassing displays of emotion. Though firm, we are never too firm. Though we love fun, we have fun in a silly way that makes us appear ridiculous, unless that is our intent.'

You'll want to hear the rest of this speech and the rest of this ridiculous story as soon as you can.

SIEGEL: The book is "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil" by George Saunders. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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