George Saunders
Riverhead, $22.95 (cloth)

For a time in the mid-1970s, it was widely acknowledged that Richard Pryor was the funniest man in America. Who crowned him was immaterial because it was indisputably true. Five minutes of his stand-up was proof. With Pastoralia, his second collection of stories, George Saunders stakes his claim to the literary equivalent of Pryor’s old title.

As in his excellent first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders’s stories are populated and often narrated by sad sacks caught between the odd and false worlds of their workplaces and their real and horrendous family circumstances. They’re failing in both worlds yet doing their best to get ahead, all the while under attack by their own anxieties.

The title story opens with typical Saunders diction, an obsessive repetition reminiscent of Gordon Lish’s early novels Peru and Dear Mr. Capote:

I have to admit I’m not feeling my best. Not that I’m doing so bad. Not that I really have anything to complain about. Not that I would actually verbally complain if I did have something to complain about. No. Because I’m Thinking Positive/Saying Positive. I’m sitting back on my haunches, waiting for people to poke their heads in. Although it’s been thirteen days since anyone poked in their head and Janet’s speaking English to me more and more, which is partly why I feel so, you know, crummy.

The narrator turns out to be a caveman, or a man portraying a caveman in an exhibit at a theme park, removed from the world at large. At home, reachable only by fax, his wife is tending his son, rapidly succumbing to an unknown disease. His cavemate is an older woman whose son is an Inadvertent Substance Misuser. The rules of the park are strict and changeable, and the narrator does his best to satisfy management’s kooky demands. His cavemate doesn’t, and her job is at the mercy of their Client Vignette Evaluations and his own Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form (which he also faxes in from his Separate Area). Our narrator tries to be nice. He hangs onto his conventional thinking, his hope and his willingness to please, in the middle of an untenable situation.

A guy from management explains things to our narrator:

We all live in a beautiful world, full of beautiful challenges and flowers and birds and super people, but also a few regrettable bad apples, such as that questionable Janet. Do I hate her? Do I want her to be killed? Gosh no, I think she’s super, I want her to be praised while getting a hot oil massage, she has some very nice traits. But guess what, I’m not paying her to have nice traits, I’m paying her to do consistently good work. Is she? Doing consistently good work? She is not. And here you are, saddled with a subpar colleague. Poor you. She’s stopping your rise and growth. People are talking about you in our lounge. Look, I know you feel Janet’s not so great. She’s a lump to you. I see it in your eye. And that must chafe. Because you are good. Very good. One of our best. And she’s bad, very bad, one of our worst, sometimes I could just slap her for what she’s doing to you.

All our narrator gets in is "She’s a friend" before the manager is off on another wild harangue.

Here, and throughout his writing, Saunders enjoys juxtaposing the euphemisms of corporate speak ("Start generating frank and nonbiased assessments of this subpar colleague," the guy urges) with the candidness of colloquial speech (our narrator’s cavemate says, "Don’t be a dick for once."). Likewise, management sends a fax telling their employees to stop calling the Disposal Debit the Shit Fee.

On top of this unveiling of language, Saunders will jam high and low idioms together within speeches for maximum contrast, fashioning a new tongue from old clichés and more recently coined buzzwords. The cavemate’s son reasons:

Oh God, the group would love this. You’re telling a very troubled inadvertent substance misuser to go live with his terminally ill grandmother? You have any idea how stressful that would be for me? I’d be inadvertently misusing again in a heartbeat.

Things inevitably proceed from bad to worse, and despite the desperate circumstances of his characters–because of those circumstances, in fact–the stories grow funnier and funnier. It’s a pathetic, almost gallows humor he uses, delivered (for his major characters’ part) absolutely deadpan. They’re too worried about the consequences of their imminent failures to find anything funny, and as their embarrassment and anxiety rise, the reader comes across passages discussing, very seriously, utterly ludicrous subjects:

I heard you very clearly, says the dad. You said Jesus Christ. You said Jesus Christ because of what I said about the goo-goo in my son’s nosehole. Well, first of all, I’m sorry if you find a little boy’s nosehole goo-goo sickening, it’s perfectly normal, if you had a kid of your own you’d know that, and second of all, since when do cavepeople speak English and know who Jesus Christ is? Didn’t the cavepeople predate Christ, if I’m not mistaken?

Like Monty Python, Saunders will go for the highbrow or lowbrow joke or anything in between, and can strike at any time. He’s fast and furious, never simply whimsical or goofy, and he so successfully delivers his pitiful characters that the reader feels at bottom some gravity or emotional anchor, even when what’s happening is loopy.

Because, on the whole, Saunders’s heroes are average. They’re making the best of insane circumstances, much as we might try to. They accept that the world may be crazy and that they have to earn a living and put up with other people’s shit, and some of that shit is exceedingly weird. The systems they’re trapped in run by false or cracked logic–like the Tom Rodgers Seminar Neil Yaniky visits in "Winky," hoping to find the assertiveness to finally kick his nutty sister out of his house:

Now what about you folks? he said softly. Is now the time for you to win? Are you ready to screen off your metaphorical oatmeal and identify your own personal Gene? Who is it that’s screwing you up? Who’s keeping you from getting what you want? Somebody is! God doesn’t make junk. If you’re losing, somebody’s doing it to you.

Like management’s rants in the title story, Tom Rodgers’s advice is self-serving and empty, an idealized fantasy when held up against the sorrows and hard demands of real life. While it might sound good, Neil can’t live by the seminar’s advice.

"Sea Oak," maybe the best of the collection, follows a narrator trying to support his extended family by dancing at a male strip club called Joysticks. He worries that his Cute Rating may drop from Knockout down through Honeypie and Adequate to Stinker. Sea Oak is the subsidized apartment complex they live in, with a view of the back of the FedEx. No one’s happy there, and it’s his fault. The narrator’s sister and cousin loll about the apartment all day with their babies, watching shows like "How My Child Died Violently" and "The Worst That Could Happen," which is:

a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he’s eaten by wolves. A man cuts his hand off chopping wood and while wandering around screaming for help is picked up by a tornado and dropped on a preschool during recess and lands on a pregnant teacher.

Their ailing grandmother lives with them, and one day someone breaks into the apartment and she dies of fright. At the funeral home, after seeing brochures like "Why Does My Loved One Appear Somewhat Larger?" the family, strapped for cash, ends up buying her a balsawood coffin.

It doesn’t hold her. After our narrator gives in to grief at work and is voted Stinker for the first time, the grandmother returns from the grave, angry and full of advice. "Show your cock," she tells him, as a way of making enough money to escape Sea Oak for a nicer complex:

After we get the new place, that’s the end of the first part of Phase Two. You’ll still show your cock, but only three days a week. Because you’ll start community college. Pre-law. Pre-law is best. You’ll be a whiz. You ain’t dumb. And Jade’ll work weekends to make up for the decrease in cock money. See? See how that works?

But, like the great advice in the earlier stories, this plan too proves useless. The grandmother’s corpse falls apart, and the sister and cousin refuse to work. They’re stuck in Sea Oak, that’s their lot in life. In the end, the narrator is haunted by the heartfelt question the undead grandmother asked him: Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?

Why? Why did that happen?
Every time I say I don’t know.
And I don’t.

This serious and real question flows underneath all the wackiness of Saunders’s best stories. People may work at the Patty-Melt Depot, but despite the goofy joke, their work is seen as a dead-end, their finances and spiritual lives stagnant. Whether they retain hope or not is uncertain, but his characters all continue to try, even when it means submitting to idiotic rules or demeaning themselves. Paradoxically, the bleakness of their struggle only makes things funnier.

Saunders’s narrators, like the caveman in the collection’s title story or the barber in "The Barber’s Unhappiness," aren’t sure how the world works, making them prey to people and systems whose logic seems more developed, no matter how insane and self-aggrandizing it sounds. Their anxieties, while sometimes leading to paralysis, are a sign, at least, of their humanity, and because the reader shares those anxieties on some plain (family, love, sickness, death, money), the stories are more than just bravura pieces. As in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, there’s a damaged American heart at the center of Pastoralia, except it’s the reader who’s laughing so hard that it hurts.