One Couch, Two Americas: a Weekend With George Saunders and NFL Football

BY Jeffrey Brown  January 18, 2013 at 2:29 PM EDT

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My assignment to myself last weekend: Rest, take it easy, fight off a cold. The only obligations: football and reading. Football involved what many fans — I am one — look forward to as the best weekend of the year, when the eight top teams are all in playoff action and every game will end one team’s season. Plus, my New England Patriots were playing, so I had a rooting interest. The reading involved George Saunders’ new short story collection, “Tenth of December.” Saunders is recognized as one of the masters of the genre, known for his biting satire and wickedly acute takes on consumer and corporate American culture. I was interviewing him that coming Monday and quick preparation was required. So I read and watched, watched and read. A few brief errands and excursions outside, but for the most part that was it for the weekend: Read a story, watch a game, watch a game, read more stories.

[WATCH JEFFREY BROWN'S INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE SAUNDERS HERE.]

Sometimes you learn about people and the country by traveling, sometimes just sitting at home. And what a display on the screen and on the page: violent, joyful, tense, bizarre, hilarious, exciting. Players and characters lost, found, mostly lost again. Everyone seeking (and sometimes finding) glory, wildly struggling (only occasionally successfully) to avoid failure. It all got mixed up in my head. Did that miraculous pass at the end of the Baltimore Ravens-Denver Broncos game really happen or was it the fevered, other-life mirage of Saunders’ character Al Roosten?

In the story “Escape from Spiderhead,” set in some near future (I think), criminals serve as guinea pigs for experimental drugs that enhance reality and take life’s ups and downs to an extreme. Then, speaking of extreme: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran so fast for a touchdown that the others on the field — and they’re all fast — seemed to be in slow motion. Was he some kind of futuristic being, headed to Spiderhead?

That confused, lost combat veteran returning to an unfamiliar America in the story “Home”: What game does he see when he turns on the widescreen TV? Beyond the bizarre, there was the humane: The great Atlanta Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez, in tears after winning a playoff game for the first time in his long career. And Saunders’ character Eber, stricken with cancer and wanting to spare his family his painful and drawn out death. He tries and fails (more failure) to end his life early. But there’s an unexpected and (can it be?) even uplifting result: Eber realizes there might still be “many drops of goodness” ahead.

You can mix them together, but you can also easily pull them apart. In football, there are winners and losers, and the scoreboard let’s you know one from the other. In Saunders, you usually don’t have a clue who’s who. Or maybe everyone is winning and losing at the same time. In Saunders, a hero might be the guy who realizes just how demented he really is. In football, the hero heads to the Hall of Fame (with a stop in Disneyland). In football, there are sequences of drama and tension but also a lot of wasted time — those endless commercials while the players stand around. In Saunders there’s a lot of waste — whole lives, perhaps? — but not of time.

In fact, on Monday when I asked Saunders about his compression of language, about leaving so much out of the story (“as much as I can”, he said), he talked of wanting to be “respectful” to the reader and thereby achieve a greater intimacy. He doesn’t want to waste our time or, I’m guessing, that of his characters. All much appreciated. However strange and tightly wound his stories might be, there’s also a generosity to them.

But I enjoyed the football as well. Two games with wild endings. The right teams won — with special apologies to friends in Denver and Wisconsin. The only semi-boring game, it turned out, involved the Patriots’ win over the Houston Texans. But that, too, was restful.

[WATCH JEFFREY BROWN'S INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE SAUNDERS HERE.]