Although sentiment has always lurked beneath the antic, corrugated surface of Mr. Saunders’s work, there is a new sympathy for his characters in these pages, an emphasis on how bad luck, poor judgment, lack of resources and family misfortune can snowball into violence or catastrophe … In story after story there is a chasm between the characters’ fantasies and the grinding boredom of their daily existence, between their aspirations to wealth and wisdom, and the derailing of their dreams through foolishness, impulsivity or the simple passage of time … It’s a measure of Mr. Saunders’s talents as a writer — his brassy language, his narrative instincts, his bone-deep understanding of his characters — that he takes what might have been a contrived and sentimental parable and turns it into a visceral and moving act of storytelling.
It’s almost hard to fathom how a writer this good could get better. But he has. A lot better, even … Most of the stories in Tenth of December are like this: They grapple in a forthright way with forthright moral questions. Saunders has always been a daring writer, but here he’s trying something very risky indeed; he’s going to tell you exactly what he’s thinking about. He might even go so far as to offer a prescription. He’s gambling that he can sacrifice a crucial creative ambiguity—what does this story mean?—at the altar of his own otherworldly talent, wagering that he can show you his cards and win the hand anyway.
In Tenth of December, his fourth and best collection, readers will encounter an abduction, a rape, a chemically induced suicide, the suppressed rage of a milquetoast or two, a veteran’s post-traumatic impulse to burn down his mother’s house — all of it buffeted by gusts of such merriment and tender regard and daffy good cheer that you realize only in retrospect how dark these morality tales really are … Yet despite the dirty surrealism and cleareyed despair, Tenth of December never succumbs to depression. That’s partly because of Saunders’s relentless humor; detractors may wonder if they made a wrong turn and ended up in the land of the joke after all. But more substantially it’s because of his exhilarating attention to language and his beatific generosity of spirit.