This is America

Not everybody does so good. Lots of people fuck up. Is it the fault of their own? Yes, sometimes it is. But sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is circumstance. Sometimes they can't help it—they have problems. Maybe they have a sister who's a Christian-saint type but also a borderline retard who lives with them in a depressing apartment and bugs them and makes it impossible for them to even date a girl because the sister is so dependent on them for everything, even though she's a saint and thinks things like “the world was a story Christ was telling her.” And so the brother goes to a seminar at the Hyatt to hear this Tony Robbins-type tell him that he should just go for it—”Now Is the Time for Me to Win!” is the thing he's supposed to say—and he's all ready to go home and throw his borderline sister out of the apartment and have his own life, but then he gets home and sees his poor dorky sister who loves him so much it's pitiful, and he knows he can't throw her out and be King of the World because he realizes “he wasn't powerful, he wasn't great, he was just the same as everybody else, less than everybody else.” And he gets even more pissed-off and frustrated and confused than he was before he went to the seminar. So whose fault is it that he's a big failure? Him? 'Cause he's weak? The Tony Robbins dude 'cause he filled him with so much B.S.? God 'cause his sister's a retarded saint? Who knows? I'm just trying to give you an example from this story called “Winky” from this totally righteous book of stories by Mr. George Saunders called Pastoralia. Or, okay, here's another example: the big story at the beginning of the book called “Pastoralia.” There's this man and lady who work in this sort of weird theme park. They pretend to be prehistoric people: they sit around roasting goats and grunting and being cavemen, and people come to watch them. Which sounds like it could be a fun job for a while, except their bosses are assholes with all sorts of rigid rules, like when they're working, even if no theme-park guests are watching them, they can't speak English and they have to do Performance Evaluations of each other every day and rat each other out if they ever act like human beings instead of cavemen. And they're always getting memos that hint around that they're going to get fired, which puts more pressure on them to rat each other out. So you think, fuck this, why don't they quit, it's a free country—and then you find out why: because they have huge family problems and they need the money and the benefits. Same old. The man keeps getting faxes from his wife—it's pretty funny, actually, he has a fax machine in his Separate Area, behind the caveman area —about his sick son (this part isn't funny): “Bad day. He had a fever then suddenly got very cold. And his legs are so swollen. In places the skin looks ready to split. Ate like two handfuls of dry Chex all day. And whiny, oh my god the poor thing. Stood on the heat grate all day in his underwear, staring out the window. Kept saying where is Daddy, why is he never here? Plus the Evemplorine went up to $70 for 120 count. God, it's all drudge drudge drudge, you should see me, I look about 90.” And the lady? She's got a mother about to die and a son always in and out of rehab. She gets so depressed she starts drinking on the job and fucking up in front of the patrons and the man feels pressured to rat her out, even though he knows she needs her job to support her dying mother and stupid son. And the pressure keeps building with the threatening memos and the sad faxes and soon the man has to decide whether he wants to rat her out and keep his job or not rat her out and lose his job for covering up for her. What do you think happens? I'm not going to tell you. Read the story. It's not long. It's less than 70 pages. What else do you have to do? Watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? You need a show to tell you the answer? It's obvious. Everybody wants to be a millionaire, and hardly anybody gets to be. There's money everywhere, and a few people get it, and everybody else feels like shit because in America you're supposed to be able to get whatever you want if you want it bad enough. Like this guy says in Pastoralia: “Let me tell you something. Something about this country. Anybody can do anything. But first they gotta try. And you guys ain't. Two don't work and one strips naked. I don't consider that trying.” Wait. I should probably explain about the stripped-naked part. There's another story in there called “Sea Oak,” about a guy who works in a place called Joysticks, which is like a Hooters for chicks with guy waiters in thongs. He lives with his Aunt Bernie and his really stupid sister and stupid cousin, who both have babies and have no business having babies. (For instance: “After dinner the babies get fussy and Min puts a mush of ice cream and Hershey's syrup in their bottles and we watch The Worst That Could Happen, a half hour of computer simulations of tragedies that have never actually occurred but theoretically could. A kid gets hit by a train and flies into a zoo, where he's eaten by wolves.”) The guy feels the pressure because he gets rated by the chicks who come into the theme restaurant, and “the minute your Cute Rating drops you're a goner”—the customers can rat him out!—but he needs to help support his sister and cousin and Aunt. And then the Aunt, who's this harmless batty old loser still working minimum wage at 60, up and dies, which is bad enough, but then her grave is robbed, and then she comes back to life, right back into their apartment, only this time she's a mean old witch screaming to the guy that if you wants to keep your job, you better “show your cock!” And he does, which is against policy, which means he might get fired. And then the Aunt starts to fall apart—and I mean really fall apart, as in her ears keep falling off, and by the end her body parts are all over the house, and she dies again and everything goes haywire with this family! And so whose fault is all this tragicness? No wonder the stupid mothers feed their babies Hershey's syrup! Look at the Aunt who raised them! And she's probably the way she is because her folks were nuts. And what's going to happen to those babies when they grow up? “Anybody can do anything in this country”? Horseshit. You know what all these stories are about? You don't need to be a genius to figure it out. These people are grotesque, man. There are cat torturers in this book and retards and people without toes. They're funny —I wish I had more time to talk about funny—and they're sad, but mostly they're grotesque because of the pressure —from teachers who tell them they're stupid, bosses who tell them to be team players so they can rat people out, and smooth talkers who take their money and tell them how you can do anything you want when you can't. But you know what? Not everybody's a winner. Not everybody wants to even play the big American success game. If they didn't have to play, maybe they wouldn't be so grotesque. Maybe if that whole American Dream thing wasn't like everybody's religion, you wouldn't have all the sad people in these stories, who are like the ones who get crucified in the dark while no one's watching so everybody else can go on believing.

Pastoralia by George Saunders; Riverhead Books. 188 pages, hardcover, $22.95.

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