George Saunders: Made in Amarillo
The New York Times Magazine proclaimed Saunders a "superhero" of American fiction. Is he a king of Texas literature too?
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Last Sunday, The New York Times Magazine wrote a fawning profile of the writer George Saunders, the 54-year-old Amarillo native whose witty post-postmodern short stories have earned him a MacArthur “genius” grant as well as comparisons to a Who’s Who of the canon. The Times article alone likened him to Albert Camus, Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Victor Hugo, Flannery O’Connor, Charles Schulz, Kurt Vonnegut, and Walt Whitman. The Jan. 3 profile is titled “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” a reference to Saunders’ new story collection, Tenth of December. In case the title didn’t convince you of Saunders’s importance, Joel Lovell writes in the piece, “For people who pay close attention to the state of American fiction, [Saunders] has become a kind of superhero.”
If that sort of press doesn’t establish Saunders, who now lives in upstate New York, as one of the top dogs in American literature, we don’t know what will. But is he a top dog of Texas literature? Sure, he can be king of Amarillo. But do his wind-up stories deserve to rub shoulders on the bookshelf with Cisneros, Dobie, Graves, McCarthy, and McMurtry?
Edward Nawotka, editor of Publishing Perspectives, answered that question seven years ago in a Texas Observer essay and interview. Saunders, Nawotka argued, was the perfect writer for the George W. Bush presidency: “[I]t is important to invite Saunders into the pantheon of great, innovative, and rebellious Texas writers,” Nawotka wrote. “He’s one son of the Lone Star State of whom we can all be proud.”
Nawotka compared Saunders to two Texas literary forebears, Terry Southern, who wrote the screenplay for the Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove, and Donald Barthelme, who wrote “absurdist stories” with “collage-like structure and esoteric, enigmatic plot lines.” Nawotka also quizzed Saunders on the influence Texas has had on his writing. One of the choicest exchanges began with Nawotka asking Saunders about literature as a possible escape from the conservatism in the state:
GEORGE SAUNDERS: Actually, when I was growing up I never thought of Texas as a conservative place at all. In Amarillo there was a good sense of what I’d call Steinbeckian wisdom—this sense that ultimately the big companies and bosses were, of course, feeding on the little guy. My grandfather worked all through the Depression—he had, at one point, four jobs at once—and so when I first read The Grapes of Wrath it was people I’d met in Amarillo that I imagined . . .
Though Saunders spent some of his formative years in a variety of places outside the Panhandle—he was in Chicago for awhile, he attended college at the Colorado School of Mines, and he worked for an oil-exploration company in the jungles of Sumatra—it was in Amarillo, the Yellow Rose of Texas, where his ascent began.
It was the mid-80s, and Saunders was working as a groundsman at an apartment complex—“with strippers for pals around the complex [and] goofball drunks recently laid off from the nuclear plant accosting me at night when I played in our comical country band,” he told Bomb magazine’s Bomblog. He decided it was time to finally try to get published. So over the span of a couple nights, he wrote “A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room.” The story–seemingly about a quality-control minion who is liberated from his duties overseeing a showroom for baby-rooms when two customers who he watches have sex there take him on a joyride–was his first published piece of writing, appearing in the January 1986 issue of Northwest Review. Saunders submitted it as part of his application for the graduate writing program at Syracuse University.
“I pick up this story; or, more truly, I am picked up by this story and taken for a ride through antic dips and loop-the-loops and headlong plunges into the unexpected,” Tobias Wolff, the author and then-instructor at Syracuse, wrote in the Summer 2009 issue of Hunger Mountain. “I haven’t read anything like it this year, nor, indeed, in all my years of reading applications. It went right to the top of the pile, and stayed there, and a few days later I was calling George Saunders with the offer of a fellowship.”
“A Lack of Order in the Floating Object Room” formed the basis for Saunders’ voice and style. In an interview with Jeff Johnson of Vice from four years ago, Saunders said of the story, “I had somehow blundered into a mode of writing that I really understood—kind of funny, irreverent, and pop-culture-influenced. I had a lot of confidence in that mode. I always seemed to know what to do next. So that was the first time that ‘writing’ and ‘power’ seemed connected. It was really fun and beautiful and that’s basically the feeling I’ve been trying to recreate ever since.”