"The best book you'll read this year."
That is a particularly bold statement for a reviewer to make in early January, but it is exactly what the New York Times had to say about Tenth of December, the new short story collection from George Saunders. That certainly grabbed my attention - especially since, to that point, I had never even heard of George Saunders. Saunders, the author of several previous short story collections, it seems, is hitting mainstream public awareness in a very big way.
There are ten stories in the collection, each of them memorable in its own way. Most readers, I suspect, unless they encounter the stories in a self-contained unit like this collection, would not guess that they had been written by the same author. The stories are that different from one other in style, tone, and theme. Included, are darkly futuristic stories, stories written from the points-of-view of children, stories about class differences, and stories of despair and redemption.
Saunders tells ten stories in 250 pages, and the longest story in the book accounts for 60 of those pages, with the shortest being only 2 pages long. So, on average, the stories are just over 20 pages each - but what stories, they are. They might be short, but they tackle life's big questions, especially those pertaining to morality, life and death, and what makes each of us tick.
The book opens with a story called "Victory Lap," in which a timid teenager struggles with the real-time decision of whether or not to go to the aid of the girl next door as she struggles with an intruder. Should he get involved or not? Will anyone ever know if he just walks away and pretends he never saw a thing? The boy's hesitance might be shocking, even a bit disgusting, but by story's end, Saunders has used his skills to, at the very least, turn the young man into an understandable – and sympathetic - character. In the process of reading "Victory Lap," one even begins to question how he might react in the same situation.
Some stories work better than others, of course, but I suspect that each of the ten will be the favorite of some percentage of the book's readers because the stories speak to the reader in a very personal sense. My own favorite is the book's title story about a little boy whose real and fantasy worlds almost seamlessly blend together. Yet, against all odds, in a chance encounter with a stranger, the boy gives a terminally ill (and suicidal) man reason to carry on by calling upon the inner strength the man had long forgotten he ever had.
Eight of these ten stories strike me as being somewhere between very good and outstanding. Tenth of December may, or it may not, turn out to be the best book I will read in 2013. It is way too early for that - but I do thank the New York Times for bringing it to my attention as, otherwise, I would almost certainly have missed it (proving that sensationalistic headlines are not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose).