Pastoralia: Stories
George Saunders
(Riverhead Books)

Poor old Hobbes, that social contract theorist, spoke out of fear and an unfortunate truth, too, when he said the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Hobbes was pleading for a unified front against the evils of individual, misinformed choices and the possibility of civil war, asking for a government ruled by the majority with the greater good in mind. He was afraid of what he called a "state of nature," where "men live without a common power to keep them all in awe." As though we're in awe of our common power, the government, anymore anyway. That was 1651. Now George Saunders speaks back to Hobbes in the stories of Pastoralia.

"'You, mister,' Bernie says to me, 'are going to start showing your cock. You'll show it and show it. You go up to a lady, if she wants to see it, if she'll pay to see it, I'll make a thumbprint on the forehead. You see the thumbprint, you ask. I'll try to get you five a day, at twenty bucks a pop. So a hundred bucks a day. Seven hundred a week. And that's cash, so no taxes. No withholding. See? That's the beauty of it.'"

Bernie, in the story "Sea Oak," is a maiden aunt who dies a virgin. Bernie dies of fright, in a shared apartment, in a slum. She obeyed the law her whole life and got nowhere, working at DrugTown. "After fifteen years as Cashier she got demoted to Greeter. People would ask where the cold remedies were and she'd point to some big letters on the wall that said Cold Remedies." When Bernie comes back from the dead, her first plan is to break every rule that ever came between her and the good life. Her plan is to revert to that "state of nature," with everyone out for him or herself. The narrator is her nephew, a male stripper in a club called Joysticks. Showing his cock, rather than his oversized "simulator," is a way to make money and break the rules.

The rest of the characters in this story keep busy raising kids and watching TV. They watch shows like The Worst That Could Happen, "a half-hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never occurred but theoretically could." They limp through GED preparation, still struggling with basic rules, the lowest level of common law, and watch How My Child Died Violently, a pseudo-reality based show reinforcing the nasty, brutish side of life.

The message isn't subtle, but it's embedded in so much absurdity, humor, and tragically real petty squabbling that it's heartbreaking. Bernie yells at her nieces, "You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad! You regret all the things you never did. You little bitches are going to have a very bad time in the grave unless you get on the stick, believe me!"

What Hobbes feared most was physical danger, the threat of a violent death. Saunders keeps this threat present in the slum housing project of "Sea Oak." Bernie yells her prophesy, "Troy's gonna get caught in a crossfire in the courtyard. In September. September eighteenth. He's gonna get thrown off his little trike. With one leg twisted under him and blood pouring out of his ear." Sure, we have government now. We have television and an endless list of distractions, but we haven't escaped the violence. We haven't managed death.

In other stories, the violence is replaced with the simple tragedy of time passing while characters remain unfulfilled--life as painfully short, with security and love evasive. All of Saunder's stories in the collection, set in theme parks and self improvement seminars, strip malls and shared housing, are surreal, beautiful, laugh-out-loud funny, and ultimately tragic. The characters are sad and loving and lost, as they struggle to remember what a genuine "state of nature," really is, beyond the K-Mart version of a social contract that so many consider life.