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FEATURE George Saunders’ Rebel Yell Born in Amarillo, he’s the perfect writer for America in the Age of George W. BY EDWARD NAWOTKA n these strange and scary times overseen by our native son George W., it’s appropriate that the most politically sensitive fiction writer publishing today is a Texan: George Saundersthe master of the surreal, satirical short story. Saunders was born in Amarillo in 1958, but moved with his family to Chicago soon after. He returned to Texas each summer to spend two weeks with his grandparents and extended family, an experience he says “seemed very exotic just the whole idea that everything about a place could be subtly different from your homethe climate, the accent, the availability of Dr Pepper.” After graduating from the Colorado School of Mines with a bachelor’s degree in geophysical engineering, he joined an oil exploration crew in Sumatra. During his years abroad he watched women in saris excavate roads. And as he later told Salon, he “learned that there was oppression.” Upon returning to the U.S., he worked a variety of odd jobs, including doorman in Beverly Hills and knuckle-puller at a West Texas slaughterhouse. In the late 1980s, Saunders, who had been writing fiction all along, was accepted into the graduate school at Syracuse University, where he is now a professor of creative writing. He has published three collections of short stories: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline Pastoralia In Persuasion Nation, published in April by Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin Group. He has also published a fable for children, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip \(recently The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. The title story in Pastoralia offers as good an introduction as any to his extraordinary body of work. In the story a pair of theme-park employees live during the workday as Cro-Magnon cavemen, communicating via grunts and combing through each other’s hair for bugs. A fresh, dead goat is shoved through a “Big Slot” each day, which the faux cavemen then skin with a flint and roast for food. Meanwhile, management communicates by fax; the cavemen, in turn, fax Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Forms to a supervisor named Nordstrom. All is well in their little prehistoric Garden of Eden until Janet, the female re-enactor, begins having trouble at home and starts drinking. When complaints from customers reach Nordstrom about Janet’s unauthorized behavior, he begins hectoring the anonymous narrator to demonstrate loyalty by ratting out his partner. Sadly, under pressure from dwindling goat supplies, the nameless caveman eventually relents, 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER AUGUST 11, 2006 George Saunders photo by Caitlin Saunders and order is restored in his ersatz paradise. The quirky scenario turns the Genesis story into a version of Orwell’s 1984. Saunders’ vision of the futurenearly all his stories are set in an alt-America just ahead of our timeis a dystopia paved over by amusement parks, experimental labs, and corporate-sponsored suburbia, peopled by “kooks” suffering from anomie and working miserable jobs. It’s not quite cynical, nor is it entirely serious. And it may be difficult to tell from this small sampleSaunders’ stories are so elaborate and so phantasmagoric, they are almost impossible to summarizebut the stuff is really funny. A practicing Buddhist, Saunders tries to apply pacifist, lateral thinking to our political problems. This endeavor has been on full display in a series of provocative, tongue-in-cheek think pieces for The New Yorker,, where he published most of his fiction, and Slate \(See for a His “Manifesto: A Press Release from PRKA,” for example,