Of the damned
wonder and terror at what people can do.
There is an electric current of sin and guilt running through each writer’s work, and what is thrilling in the latter case is watching the survival of what we have come to think of as an antique American attitude — in which the fierce strictures of New England puritanism are pushed up against the hard edges of life.
How else to explain the existential imperatives laid down in stories such as Escape from Spiderhead, Victory Lap and the stunning title story, Tenth of December? In each case characters are faced with a choice between animal instinct — to run from or cower in the face of more powerful agents or terrible occurrence — and eternal damnation (though in these more recent contexts damnation is more a matter of individual conscience than the certainty of hellfire).
Tenth of December, which is surely the best thing that Saunders has produced, sets out only the barest of narrative branches. A sick man who has wandered from his home in freezing weather, wearing little more than pyjamas, saves a young boy who has fallen through the ice of a pond in a semi-wilderness on the outskirts of an unnamed suburb. On reviving, the boy runs home in panic, leaving the man dangerously exposed to the elements. The story concludes with the boy’s mother, alerted to the man’s heroism, setting out to try to find him and bring him safely home.
Save the incredibly complex interplay of memory and perspective that Saunders employs here, there is a stillness and simplicity in this story that is quite at odds with the hectic, noisome, materially replete America of those preceding it.
The questions it asks, too, about the nature of personal courage and the moral necessity of bravery — about the responsibility we owe to our children and our neighbours — are posed with a quietude and sincerity that beggar the smallness of spirit that, for the author, is the default impulse of contemporary life.
The story’s conclusion represents the kind of modest, minor-key catharsis that only a writer trued by the certainty of their talent could extend.