Even though I'll read anything by George Saunders - one of my favorite writers - I was fully prepared to be disappointed with his new collection of essays, The Braindead Megaphone, if only because I've been disappointed in collections like this before. Oh sure, just cobble together some random tidbits, scribblings, non-fiction musings, previously unpublished works (unpublished for a reason), package it into a book to satisfy said writer's desperate fan base. Well, this is not filler, and won't disappoint Saunders' fans. It may even win a few new converts.
The pieces here have appeared in McSweeney's, The New Yorker, Slate, among many other places, and run the gamut to short, and true to Saunders, surreally hilarious little gems (an advice column written by "The Optimist" that turns increasingly out of control; a letter from an erudite canine to its owner, pleading for said owner to please refrain from dancing naked to Purple Rain in front of him) - to longer, non-fiction pieces that maintain Saunders' trademark absurdist viewpoint (a look at the oddball exploding new city of Dubai; an American's view of England, which would qualify more as fiction, except it does capture perfectly the worst of both places and the American xenophobe's perspective). There are also Random Pieces That We Like (as Saunders might put it), including a fine and amusing introduction to Huckleberry Finn of which Mark Twain would surely approve. The titular essay is a reflection on how the American way of holding debates seems to have denigrated into shouting at each other ("the people who used to ask, 'Is it news?' now seem to be asking, 'Will it stimulate?'")
The best essay in the whole collection, however, is "The Great Divider," which may be the single best piece of writing on the US-Mexico border debate I've yet to encounter. Saunders trekked down to Texas and parts west (and south) to interview, and follow around, those most intimately involved with illegal immigration - from Mexicans who've made it to the militia-like Minutemen who want to keep any more Mexicans from making it. Saunders displays his usual terrific sense of humor and also a sense of fairness in portraying all the viewpoints, even when he's upfront with his subjects about not only being a member of "the Media" but also an "East Coast Liberal" (which the Minutemen he hangs out with find fascinating). This piece, which originally appeared in GQ magazine, should be required reading for every American - the majority of whom, if I had to guess, are probably somewhere in the middle of this debate.
Saunders should be required reading in general, though part of me wishes he was still my little secret.
[More quickie book reviews coming soon]