Fat Books & Thin Women

Story Sunday: George Saunders’s “Home”
September 11, 2011, 8:42 pm
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Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

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George Saunders’s portrait of a soldier just returned from war in the story “Home” never pushes for catharthis. That’s what makes the story work; it may be an emotionally charged piece, but it’s not an emotionally manipulative one. The narrator of “Home” makes only oblique references to his experiences in the war, and while the reader knows there’s plenty he’s not revealing, these unknowns add something to the story. The narrator’s (sometimes failed) effort to draw a clear border between his time in the war and his time at home is marked from the first line of the story, but again, Saunders never belabors the point.

Like in the old days, I came out of the dry creek behind the house and did my little tap on the kitchen window

That tap on the window, that reference to “the old days”; the narrator isn’t going to succeed in reclaiming his old life and routines, but his faltering attempts to do so are evident from the first. More than that, there’s a sort of deep shame coloring much of the story. The narrator goes into so little detail about his service that the reader can’t come to a real conclusion about what he’s not telling us. He suggests, repeatedly, that he did something wrong in the war, that there is something people want to know about his time there, but that he isn’t going to tell them. When he writes about his interactions with family and old acquaintances, though, it’s hard not to wonder if the narrator is really speaking, too, about the war:

They were both so scared they weren’t talking at all, which made me feel the kind of shame you know you’re not going to cure by saying sorry, and where the only thing to do is: go out, get more shame.

With the narrator surrounded by his disintegrating family and failed relationships, with people making curt acknowledgement of his service before returning to harassing him and his family (for not paying rent, among other things) Saunders gives us a portrait of the returned serviceman that lacks even the slightest touch of nobility. It’s an image we should keep and remember, though: not of the returning hero but of the soldier who screwed up, and who in returning to his inauspicious roots finds little of value awaiting him.

Read “Home” online

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