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by George Saunders


by George Saunders


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A stunning collection including the story "Sea Oak," from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Man Booker Prize—winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo and the story collection Tenth of December, a 2013 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

Hailed by Thomas Pynchon as "graceful, dark, authentic, and funny," George Saunders gives us, in his inventive and beloved voice, this bestselling collection of stories set against a warped, hilarious, and terrifyingly recognizable American landscape.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781573228725
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/01/2001
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 77,483
Product dimensions: 5.13(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

George Saunders is the Man Booker Prize—winning author of Lincoln in the Bardo; Tenth of DecemberIn Persuasion Nation; The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil; Pastoralia; CivilWarLand in Bad Decline; The Braindead Megaphone; and a children's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip. His work appears regularly in the New Yorker, Harper's and GQ. In 2006, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." In 2000, The New Yorker named him one of the "Best Writers Under 40."  He is a 2013 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction. He teaches at Syracuse University.

Read an Excerpt


I have to admit I’m not feeling my best. Not that I’m doing so bad. Not that I really have anything to complain about. Not that I would actually verbally complain if I did have something to complain about. No. Because I’m Thinking Positive/Saying Positive. I’m sitting back on my haunches, waiting for people to poke in their heads. Although it’s been thirteen days since anyone poked in their head and Janet’s speaking English to me more and more, which is partly why I feel so, you know, crummy.

“Jeez,” she says first thing this morning. “I’m so tired of roast goat I could scream.”

What am I supposed to say to that? It puts me in a bad spot. She thinks I’m a goody-goody and that her speaking English makes me uncomfortable. And she’s right. It does. Because we’ve got it good. Every morning, a new goat, just killed, sits in our Big Slot. In our Little Slot, a book of matches. That’s better than some. Some are required to catch wild hares in snares. Some are required to wear pioneer garb while cutting the heads off chickens. But not us. I just have to haul the dead goat out of the Big Slot and skin it with a sharp flint. Janet just has to make the fire. So things are pretty good. Not as good as in the old days, but then again, not so bad.

In the old days, when heads were constantly poking in, we liked what we did. Really hammed it up. Had little grunting fights. Whenever I was about to toss a handful of dirt in her face I’d pound a rock against a rock in rage. That way she knew to close her eyes. Sometimes she did this kind of crude weaving. It was like: Roots of Weaving. Some-times we’d go down to Russian Peasant Farm for a barbecue, I remember there was Murray and Leon, Leon was dating Eileen, Eileen was the one with all the cats, but now, with the big decline in heads poking in, the Russian Peasants are all elsewhere, some to Administration but most not, Eileen’s cats have gone wild, and honest to God sometimes I worry I’ll go to the Big Slot and find it goatless.


This morning I go to the Big Slot and find it goatless. Instead of a goat there’s a note:

Hold on, hold on, it says. The goat’s coming, for crissake. Don’t get all snooty.

The problem is, what am I supposed to do during the time when I’m supposed to be skinning the goat with the flint? I decide to pretend to be desperately ill. I rock in a corner and moan. This gets old. Skinning the goat with the flint takes the better part of an hour. No way am I rocking and moaning for an hour.

Janet comes in from her Separate Area and her eyebrows go up.

“No freaking goat?” she says.

I make some guttural sounds and some motions meaning: Big rain come down, and boom, make goats run, goats now away, away in high hills, and as my fear was great, I did not follow.

Janet scratches under her armpit and makes a sound like a monkey, then lights a cigarette.

“What a bunch of shit,” she says. “Why you insist, I’ll never know. Who’s here? Do you see anyone here but us?”

I gesture to her to put out the cigarette and make the fire. She gestures to me to kiss her butt.

“Why am I making a fire?” she says. “A fire in advance of a goat. Is this like a wishful fire? Like a hopeful fire? No, sorry, I’ve had it. What would I do in the real world if there was thunder and so on and our goats actually ran away? Maybe I’d mourn, like cut myself with that flint, or maybe I’d kick your ass for being so stupid as to leave the goats out in the rain. What, they didn’t put it in the Big Slot?”

I scowl at her and shake my head.

“Well, did you at least check the Little Slot?” she says. “Maybe it was a small goat and they really crammed it in. Maybe for once they gave us a nice quail or something.”

I give her a look, then walk off in a rolling gait to check the Little Slot.


“Well, freak this,” she says. “I’m going to walk right out of here and see what the hell is up.”

But she won’t. She knows it and I know it. She sits on her log and smokes and together we wait to hear a clunk in the Big Slot.

About lunch we hit the Reserve Crackers. About dinner we again hit the Reserve Crackers.

No heads poke in and there’s no clunk in either the Big or Little Slot.

Then the quality of light changes and she stands at the door of her Separate Area.

“No goat tomorrow, I’m out of here and down the hill,” she says. “I swear to God. You watch.”

I go into my Separate Area and put on my footies. I have some cocoa and take out a Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form.

Do I note any attitudinal difficulties? I do not. How do I rate my Partner overall? Very good. Are there any Situations which require Mediation?

There are not.

I fax it in.


Next morning, no goat. Also no note. Janet sits on her log and smokes and together we wait to hear a clunk in the Big Slot.

No heads poke in and there’s no clunk in either the Big or Little Slot.

About lunch we hit the Reserve Crackers. About dinner we again hit the Reserve Crackers.

Then the quality of light changes and she stands at the door of her Separate Area.

“Crackers, crackers, crackers!” she says pitifully. “Jesus, I wish you’d talk to me. I don’t see why you won’t. I’m about to go bonkers. We could at least talk. At least have some fun. Maybe play some Scrabble.”


I wave good night and give her a grunt.

“Bastard,” she says, and hits me with the flint. She’s a good thrower and I almost say ow. Instead I make a horselike sound of fury and consider pinning her to the floor in an effort to make her submit to my superior power etc. etc. Then I go into my Separate Area. I put on my footies and tidy up. I have some cocoa. I take out a Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form.

Do I note any attitudinal difficulties? I do not. How

do I rate my Partner overall? Very good. Are there any Situations which require Mediation?

There are not.

I fax it in.


In the morning in the Big Slot there’s a nice fat goat. Also a note:

Ha ha! it says. Sorry about the no goat and all. A little mix-up. In the future, when you look in here for a goat, what you will find on every occasion is a goat, and not a note. Or maybe both. Ha ha! Happy eating! Everything’s fine!

I skin the goat briskly with the flint. Janet comes in, smiles when she sees the goat, and makes, very quickly, a nice little fire, and does not say one English word all morning and even traces a few of our pictographs with a wettened finger, as if awestruck at their splendid beauty and so on.

Around noon she comes over and looks at the cut on my arm, from where she threw the flint.

“You gonna live?” she says. “Sorry, man, really sorry, I just like lost it.”

I give her a look. She cans the English, then starts wailing in grief and sort of hunkers down in apology.

The goat tastes super after two days of crackers.

I have a nap by the fire and for once she doesn’t walk around singing pop hits in English, only mumbles unintelligibly and pretends to be catching and eating small bugs.

Her way of saying sorry.

No one pokes their head in.


Once, back in the days when people still poked their heads in, this guy poked his head in.

“Whoa,” he said. “These are some very cramped living quarters. This really makes you appreciate the way we live now. Do you have call-waiting? Do you know how to make a nice mushroom cream sauce? Ha ha! I pity you guys. And also, and yet, I thank you guys, who were my precursors, right? Is that the spirit? Is that your point? You weren’t ignorant on purpose? You were doing the best you could? Just like I am? Probably someday some guy representing me will be in there, and some punk who I’m precursor of will be hooting at me, asking why my shoes were made out of dead cows and so forth? Because in that future time, wearing dead skin on your feet, no, they won’t do that. That will seem to them like barbarity, just like you dragging that broad around by her hair seems to us like barbarity, although to me, not that much, after living with my wife fifteen years. Ha ha! Have a good one!”

I never drag Janet around by the hair.

Too cliché.

Just then his wife poked in her head.

“Stinks in there,” she said, and yanked her head out.

“That’s the roasting goat,” her husband said. “Everything wasn’t all prettied up. When you ate meat, it was like you were eating actual meat, the flesh of a dead animal, an animal that maybe had been licking your hand just a few hours before.”

“I would never do that,” said the wife.

“You do it now, bozo!” said the man. “You just pay someone to do the dirty work. The slaughtering? The skinning?”

“I do not either,” said the wife.

We couldn’t see them, only hear them through the place where the heads poke in.

“Ever heard of a slaughterhouse?” the husband said. “Ha ha! Gotcha! What do you think goes on in there? Some guy you never met kills and flays a cow with what you might term big old cow eyes, so you can have your shoes and I can have my steak and my shoes!”

“That’s different,” she said. “Those animals were raised for slaughter. That’s what they were made for. Plus I cook them in an oven, I don’t squat there in my underwear with smelly smoke blowing all over me.”

“Thank heaven for small favors,” he said. “Joking! I’m joking. You squatting in your underwear is not such a bad mental picture, believe me.”

“Plus where do they poop,” she said.

“Ask them,” said the husband. “Ask them where they poop, if you so choose. You paid your dime. That is certainly your prerogative.”

“I don’t believe I will,” said the wife.

“Well, I’m not shy,” he said.

Then there was no sound from the head-hole for quite some time. Possibly they were quietly discussing it.

“Okay, so where do you poop?” asked the husband, poking his head in.

“We have disposable bags that mount on a sort of rack,” said Janet. “The septic doesn’t come up this far.”

“Ah,” he said. “They poop in bags that mount on racks.”

“Wonderful,” said his wife. “I’m the richer for that information.”

“But hold on,” the husband said. “In the old times, like when the cave was real and all, where then did they go? I take it there were no disposal bags in those times, if I’m right.”

“In those times they just went out in the woods,” said Janet.

“Ah,” he said. “That makes sense.”

You see what I mean about Janet? When addressed directly we’re supposed to cower shrieking in the corner but instead she answers twice in English?

I gave her a look.

“Oh, he’s okay,” she whispered. “He’s no narc. I can tell.”

In a minute in came a paper airplane: our Client Vignette Evaluation.

Under Overall Impression he’d written: A-okay! Very nice.

Under Learning Value he’d written: We learned where they pooped. Both old days and now.

I added it to our pile, then went into my Separate Area and put on my footies. I filled out my Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form. Did I note any attitudinal difficulties? I did not. How did I rate my Partner overall? Very good. Were there any Situations which required Mediation?

There were not.

I faxed it in.

Reprinted from Pastoralia by George Saunders by permission of Riverhead, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001, George Saunders. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Intoxicating.” —Time Out

“Exuberantly weird . . . brutally funny” —The New York Times

“Compulsively swallowed, sweetly addictive” —San Francisco Bay Guardian

“Demands to be reread immediately” —The Wall Street Journal

“Hilarious and heartrending” —The Village Voice

“Breathtaking . . . a masterpiece” —San Diego Union Tribune

“Riveting” —U.S. News and World Report

“Screamingly funny” —Time

“Saunders is a provocateur, a moralist, a zealot, a lefty, and a funny, funny writer, and the stories in Pastoralia delight. We’re very lucky to have them.” —Esquire

“Breathtaking, brutally hilarious satire, a savage skewering not only of the American workplace, but of the American character itself. . . . Pastoralia is a masterpiece of unsettling comedy.” —San Diego Union Tribune

“Artful and sophisticated. . . .truly unusual. Imagine Lewis’s Babbitt thrown into the back seat of a car going cross-country, driven by R. Crumb, Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Harvey Pekar or Spike Jonze. That’d be a story Saunders could tell.”—The New York Times

“The short-story collection of the year . . . Pastoralia does everything a gathering of tales is supposed to do: It touches the reader but also provokes reflection, mirth, and pain.” —Kansas City Star

“Dazzling . . . Saunders’s misfits confront their degradations with heroic optimism; rarely have the comic nuances of suffering been tracked with such precision. These stories, injected with Saunders’s highly original blend of irony and tenderness, ride you down spirals of the absurd and fling you back to your own life, startled.” —Men’s Journal

“A master of distilling the disorders of our time into fiction.” —Salon

“Fiercely funny . . . [Saunders is] a master of the self-flagellating interior monologue.” —The Boston Globe

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