Is there a worse place to work than a theme park? I'd suspect that George Saunders--poet laureate of the dead-end job--would say no. Since his debut story collection, 1996's CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Saunders has been drawn to cut-rate Adventurelands; think the Medieval Times chain but not so high-end. Cheap theme parks are funny and sad in the same way Saunders' stories are funny and sad. There's something especially soul crushing about drawing minimum wage to create illusion on a budget, and Saunders makes you feel the mental toll of living paycheck to paycheck. On the other hand, we have knights with cardboard armaments and grown men dressed up as life-size cartoon mice. It's not hard to mock. But here's the thing: Saunders knows that if you find yourself working at one of these theme parks, chances are, you can't afford to lose the job. In his postcrash America, we're closer to the edge than we realize--and it doesn't take much to slip.
So it is for the unfortunate Ted of "My Chivalric Fiasco," one of the standout stories in Saunders' excellent new collection, Tenth of December. Ted works in janitorial at a medieval theme park until he witnesses his boss taking advantage of a married co-worker. In return for his silence, Ted gets a promotion to a stage job as a pacing guard, which he hopes will help him take care of his sick parents and sister. But when he takes a drug called KnightLyfe (which causes him to think and speak like an extra from Camelot--supercharged psychotropics being another Saunders trope) for his new job, Ted finds that he can't hold his tongue. "Of What Use is Life," he thinks while under the influence, "if the Living Man doth not pursue Righteousness, & enforce Justice as God granteth him the Power to do so?"
But this is not a chivalrous age, and after he exposes his monstrous boss, Ted is quickly fired and his co-worker is forced to live with the public shame of the affair. By doing the right thing, Ted screws himself and everyone around him. That part is very Saunders: the unlucky working stiff pulverized by petty workplace authority. Yet the story ends with a glimmer of hope, a sense that Ted was right to do what he did, despite the cost. There's an essential humanity in us that endures in the face of the terrible economy, the bankrupting health care bills, the stupidly cruel bosses. That part is Saunders too.
For a writer who first gained notice as a sometimes vicious satirist of office-park America, Saunders dives deep into the emotional with Tenth of December. The best new stories, like the deeply weird and moving "Escape from Spiderhead," give play to both impulses. A convicted murderer serves out his sentence testing cutting-edge psychiatric drugs for a blandly terrifying pharmaceutical company, pills that can make him fall in love instantly or describe his surroundings with the language of a poet. But when he's ordered to give a drug that triggers suicidal depression to another subject, he chooses to disobey--another decision that is self-destructive even as it affirms a goodness that can't be controlled by chemicals or nullified by corporate greed.