Beautiful losers on the couch

<i>Pastoralia</i> by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, &pound;9.99, 204pp)
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The Independent Culture

If you think that America is an irony-free zone, then meet George Saunders, and think again. Saunders, author of the acclaimed Civil-War Land in Bad Decline, specialises in dark, bleakly hilarious missives from the State of Loserdom, a territory populated by characters on the edge of both hope and reason. In his new collection, these sorry folks include a toe-less barber who's a compulsive fantasist and a man who enrols in a self-help class in order to stop his loopy sister from "crapping in his oatmeal".

If you think that America is an irony-free zone, then meet George Saunders, and think again. Saunders, author of the acclaimed Civil-War Land in Bad Decline, specialises in dark, bleakly hilarious missives from the State of Loserdom, a territory populated by characters on the edge of both hope and reason. In his new collection, these sorry folks include a toe-less barber who's a compulsive fantasist and a man who enrols in a self-help class in order to stop his loopy sister from "crapping in his oatmeal".

Surely you shouldn't be laughing at them? But laugh you do. The title story is set in a run-down History of Man theme park, where punters pay to watch how their ancestors lived. Here the narrator and his middle-aged co-worker Janet eke out a pitiful existence acting as Neanderthals. Janet's performance as a pre-civilised human is slipping below par; when she learns that her addict son has ditched rehab, she reacts by swearing at a punter. Her co-worker still loyally covers her back in the face of dictatorial management. A terrible poignancy pervades, lifting the story beyond quirkiness and into a more subtle realm.

Saunders's unfailing ear for the dumb-ass sentences of trailer-park America shows just how well he understands the absurd heroism of life on the margins. The best example is the brilliant "Sea Oak". It's narrated by a waiter who serves food in the semi-buff in an aviation-themed eatery called Joysticks, while his maiden aunt Bernie mans the checkout in DrugTown. Bernie looks militantly on the bright side - until a burglar frightens her to death. She returns from the dead with a personality transplant, determined to scare her couch-potato family into sharpening up its act. "The world ain't givin' away nice lives," she tells her stripper nephew. "You got a trust fund? You a genius? Show your cock." By the time Bernie has melted into a squalid pool of matter, the family started the rocky clamber towards the "better life".

It's funny and deeply moving. Here is that rare and precious thing: satire with a heart. What unites these committed losers is a sense of morality and a hopeless decency. And it's this that marks Saunders as one of the most exciting new voices in America. Here is one writer who will definitely not be crapping in your oatmeal.

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