“The cruelty and ignorance just radiated from her fat face, with its little smear of lipstick.”
He’s a manipulator that George Saunders. And, this story of his, “Puppy,” is based on a trick. I know it. I’m sure other readers know it too. The trick is rather transparent, really, yet, I find myself not quite able to escape its effect. When the storyteller is skilled enough, it doesn’t matter if you know the moves. The trick still works. This trick, it’s simple. Take something, show it to the reader, let the reader get comfortable with it, then change the point of view, and watch the reader second guess. That’s it.
In this story, we are shown two women, Marie and Callie. We see each in her own imperfect world—one that allows each woman to seem compassionate and reasonable. Saunders gives us just enough, I think, to accept each woman despite her short comings. Furthermore, enough is given to allow the reader to regard these women as similar—both are mothers, both have sons with self-control issues, and both have troubles with family pets.
It is a pet that leads these women into contact, that leads Marie and her children into Callie’s home. Marie is looking for a dog; her children have lost interest in the family’s other pets, a ferret and an iguana. And, Callie’s family has an unwanted (and it turns out endangered) puppy to sell. It is with this collision of worlds that the trick is present. In their own contexts, the women can be regarded generously, as being “good” in the eyes of the reader. However, once they meet, that status is disrupted. The clash of contexts leaves both women subject to judgment, by each other and by the reader.
To back up just a bit, this is not to say that the reader is not enabled to judge both Marie and Callie from the outset. We are. Both women have their trials. Marie struggles to help her son Josh, who we are told is “withdrawn” and who is shown exhibiting physical aggression. Her solution, at least for the moment, has been to give Josh a video game called Noble Baker. It involves fighting off animals while trying to get loaves into an oven. It is an odd game, and leads Josh to yell “Slicing knife! Slicing knife!” at one point. Odd as it is, Marie concludes that this “therapy” has helped him.
Callie too struggles to help her son, Bo. Bo’s trouble is that he wanders into dangerous places, including across an interstate highway. His method of crossing? “To dart.” It’s terrifying even to consider. Bo is prescribed drugs, but he takes them only intermittently. The side effects are unpleasant—clenching teeth—and violent—dropping his fist and breaking things. Callie too is burdened with an unwanted puppy. Her husband is threatening to drown it if it cannot be given away. It is revealed that he once executed, reluctantly, the same sentence on a litter of kittens because that’s what one on a farm does with “extra animals.” These are two troubled stories. And, neither woman is without fault. However, it is not until their worlds intersect that we find our initial acceptance of each woman profoundly challenged.
And, challenged it is. On the surface, it would seem that Callie is the one most harshly judged. Marie is shocked by Callie’s untidy home. In some instances I agree with Marie, e.g., dog turds picked up and set on the counter–in other cases not so much, e.g., a basketball in the sink, a red pepper in a can of green paint. But, what shocks Marie most is Bo. It turns out that Callie’s solution to Bo’s wanderlust is to harness him to a tree in the backyard. Once Marie sees this, the mission is over. Though her son and daughter are both smitten with the puppy, Marie refuses and leads her family away. In her mind, she simply cannot “contribute to a situation like this even in the smallest way.” She further expresses an intent to inform Child Welfare about what she has seen. But is she right?
Is Bo being neglected? To me, that’s not clear. Marie’s judgment strikes me as too hasty. Really, she knows nothing about the situation. Bo is a child that presents challenges. And, the harness, disturbing and unusual as it may be, would seem to address them. He can be outside, he doesn’t suffer from medication side effects, and he can’t walk on the highway. Perhaps there are better alternatives, but it’s not clear that this one equates to neglect. Callie may be an imperfect mother, and perhaps she’s fooling herself a bit, but I’m not persuaded that she’s unfit or lacking compassion.
I do think that Marie’s motives, however, can be called into question. What is it really that troubles her about Callie? The dog turds on the floor are unpleasant, no question, and Callie’s carelessness with them is icky, but a woman about to adopt a puppy must necessarily be willing to allow her own household floors to be similarly soiled. Even housebroken dogs have occasional accidents. Marie’s revulsion feels misplaced. As is her reaction the other odd things she observes in the home. A pot on a bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane, what’s the big deal?
What seems to be going on here that Marie is equating disorder with neglect. I don’t think that’s fair. And, her characterization of Callie’s fat face as radiating cruelty and ignorance feels itself to be cruel and ignorant. Perhaps Marie means well, perhaps her own childhood neglect is simply misleading her. Or, perhaps she’s right, perhaps Callie’s in over her head with Bo.
And, so goes the uncertainty rendered by this story, all of it blossoming from that one trick. What looks okay from one angle looks like hell from another. So, which angle is the right one? Is it even possible to know? I think we saw this same trick in an earlier story I wrote about, Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” That story concerned just a single character, and entailed a much more dramatic shift in perspective—from inside a bank to inside a brain—but in the end, I think it brought about a similar effect. A character seen from one point-of-view looks rather different when examined from another. A reader’s initial sense of understanding is obliterated and replaced with something more thoughtful yet also less certain.
So, well done, George Saunders. Your trick, on me at least, it has worked.
“Puppy” is just one of several great stories appearing in Saunders’ newly released collection, Tenth of December, which has already received many strong reviews (a favorable, in-depth piece from the NY Times). If you like this story, the collection is well worth picking up.