cover image Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella

Civil War Land in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella

George Saunders. Random House (NY), $22 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44812-9

In this debut collection of seven dystopian fantasies, some of which have appeared in the New Yorker and Harper's, America in the near future is a toxic wasteland overrun by vicious thugs and venal opportunists who prey on the weak and misshapen. Saunders's feverish imagination conjures up images as horrific as any from a Hieronymus Bosch painting: a field full of braying mules toppled over from bone marrow disease; a tourist attraction featuring pickled stillborn babies; and cows with Plexiglas windows in their sides. The black humor and vision of American enterprise and evangelism gone haywire are reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut's early works. In the novella ``Bounty,'' for example, the clawed-foot narrator, who flees slavery under the ``Normals'' to find his sister, sees a McDonald's that is the headquarters of the Church of Appropriate Humility, aka ``the Guilters.'' ``In Guilter epistemology,'' he observes, ``the arches represent the twin human frailties of arrogance and mediocrity.'' Despite the richness of the vision and the occasionally heart-melting prose, however, there is little difference in voice to distinguish one story from another. Read in one sitting, they blur into a bleak and unsettling vision of the world to come. (Jan.)