I was so excited about today. I was going to sleep in, spend the day reading enough of the book I’m currently reading to actually do a proper post about it, exercise, have a sensible dinner, and then go to bed at a reasonable hour. But what happened instead? Husband left dogs outside so my “sleeping in” lasted until about 8:30 when I couldn’t take the sound of my golden retriever barking to be let back in anymore, and got up. So I retired to the living room to eat breakfast and read for a while, which turned into (as it often does) defending my yogurt from the dumb Bengal cat, sharing my blankie with said dumb Bengal cat and his sister the tiny tortoiseshell, and falling asleep on my book. I was awakened by my friend Jenni calling to see what time I wanted to have lunch. I had forgotten we had made plans to have lunch and maybe go shopping today. So I motivated, we met in Davis, went to Vacaville for lunch and outlet shopping. When she dropped me off it was only about three so I headed downtown and hit up The Avid Reader, one of my favorite independent local bookstores. What is it about indie bookstores? Is it the local NPR playing classical music? The sound of someone’s dog barking for attention? The employees who are actually able to make educated book recommendations? I was there for a while, trying to make up compelling reasons why I needed to buy Joyce Carol Oates’ The Accursed right now, as opposed to waiting until I tracked it down used sometime in the future. I went so far as to message Bethany and ask her if she wanted to do a vampire-fiction-written-by-esteemed-authors challenge in celebration of Deborah Harkness’ book coming out this summer. She declined, but I still bought the book. And Isabel Allende’s new one, Ripper, and a short story collection by George Saunders called Civilwarland in Bad Decline. This book was his first collection of stories, and it’s “a collection of seven dystopian fantasies,” according to Publishers Weekly. I first discovered George Saunders when I read the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction last summer, and it occurred to me that talking about a couple of the stories in that collection might be a good idea for tonight’s post.
The first story I’m going to talk about is Louise Erdrich’s “Disaster Stamps of Pluto.” In this case we are talking about the tiny town of Pluto, North Dakota. The narrator is an unnamed retired female physician in her eighties. She seems like a nice lady. Pluto is one of those towns that aren’t going to exist for much longer, where “the dead of Pluto now outnumber the living, and the cemetery stretches up the low hill east of town in a jagged display of white stone. There is no bar, no theater, no hardware store, no creamery or car repair, just a gas pump. Even the priest comes to the church only once a month (281).” Pluto is very one of those Midwestern towns that my grandpa grew up in. He used to say that his family would change religions whenever they moved, because there was usually only once church in whatever town they moved from or to. He also said that he barefoot in the snow uphill both ways to get to school all year long, so who knows how true the religion statement actually was, but that passage made me think of him regardless.
In the town of Pluto the bulk of local life is carried on at the town café, and this is where our narrator and her good friend Neve Harp meet for lunch and exchange stories about the town’s history—they are members of the Pluto Historical Society. “Our conversations slide through time and we dwell often on setting straight the town record. I think we’ve sifted through every town occurrence by now, but perhaps when it comes to our own stories there is something left to know (285).” I feel that if Bethany and I had grown up in a Midwestern town in the early twentieth century this would be our fate—to sit set the record straight about the history of our town. One of the stories Neve and our narrator rehash is the one about a family that is murdered in their home in 1924. Only one member of the family survived, a seven month old baby girl, who grew up to be the first female doctor in the region. Of course this is the narrator, though Erdrich reveals the details in such an unobtrusive way (she is a master of showing, not telling) that it’s a surprise at the end. The story’s name doesn’t come from the narrator’s own story, not really though. It comes from one of Neve’s stories, about her uncle Octave Harp, the banker who committed suicide in Pluto. He was a great collector of stamps, especially what one calls disaster stamps, “stamps and covers, or envelopes, that had survived the dreadful occurrences that test or destroy us. These pieces of mail, water-stained, tattered, even bloodied, marked by experience, took their value from the gravity of their condition. Such damage was part of their allure (288).” Uncle Octave may or may not have gotten into forging disaster stamps, as well. Ah, small town drama.
At the end of the story, we learn that the whole story has been the final newsletter of the Pluto Historical Society, and that at one point in her career as a physician she saved the life of her family’s murderer, though she didn’t know it at the time. Rereading this story reminded me how much I love Louise Erdrich’s writing. I can’t believe I haven’t read anything of hers in probably two years. Good thing The Round House is at the top of one of my to-read piles.
The other story I’ll talk about tonight is George Saunders’ “The Red Bow,” since I mentioned him earlier. This story is also a first person narrative, and the narrator is a bereaved father whose daughter has been killed by a pack of dogs. The dogs have some sort of disease, maybe. The signs of the disease are shuddering, “wet eyes,” and a propensity for killing things the dog would not usually kill, like deer and children. This story also takes place in a small town, and the townsfolk get pretty hysterical about these dogs, at first tracking down the four dogs who killed Emily, and then they start after all of the dogs and cats in the town who may have had contact with the four definitely infected dogs. The narrator’s deadbeat Uncle Matt leads the charge: “It was funny about Uncle Matt, I mean funny as in great, admirable, this sudden stepping up to the plate, because previously—I mean yes, he of course loved the kids, but had never been particularly—I mean he rarely even spoke to them, least of all to Emily, her being the youngest. Mostly he just went very quietly around the house, especially since January when he’d lost his job, avoiding the kids really, a little ashamed almost, as if knowing that, when they grew up, they would never be the out-of-work slinking-around uncle, but instead would be the owners of the house where the out-of-work slinking uncle, etc., etc. (673)” I kind of think Uncle Matt took the opportunity to reinvent himself as the hero of the town, though perhaps he gets a bit carried away. The whole town gets carried away. At the end of the story the narrator states that all the dogs and cats in the town were eventually sacrificed, though I’m pretty sure most of them couldn’t have been infected. I’d love to read more about this town and the mass hysteria that is only hinted at in this story.
Normally I don’t love stories like this one, and by that I mean stories without quotation marks around dialogue, or stories that tell about crazy, terrible events in a blasé fashion. But I wanted to read more Saunders as soon as I finished this story, because this story reeks of dystopia, and I love dystopia. I really hope that he doesn’t have any more stories about humans murdering cats and dogs, or about dogs murdering little girls, though. The other thing about Saunders is that he is funny. Dystopia and humor are two of my favorite things in fiction. The topic of this story is awful, but Saunders manages to inject some humor when talking about the town priest: “Father Terry, who had always had a streak of ego, with that silver hair with the ripples in it, and also he had a weight set in the Rectory basement and worked out twice a day and had, actually, a very impressive physique, which he showed off, I felt—we all felt—by ordering his priest shirts perhaps a little too tight (674).” I’ve known a lot of priests in my life, and I can’t say I’ve ever thought any of them wore their shirts too tight, unless they were too tight around their midsections.
Now I want to read those stories! As to changing religions, I was somewhat shocked as an adult when I found out that Protestants chang churches often, either because there is only one church in town, or the music is better at one church or another, or they just like the preacher more at some church. I was also shocked that churches could fire their ministers! Imagine that in the Catholic Church! My father told me that when he was a kid in Boston there was a priest who said the noon mass faster than any other priest (Latin mass), and wore his baseball uniform under his robes so he could tear out of the church and get to his team’s (he was the coach, I think) practice on time. Priests were really different in the old days. More like any other man. Except, maybe, Jesuits.