Temples and Playgrounds

Previewing the 2007 Texas Book Festival, Nov. 3-4

Temples and Playgrounds

The Braindead Megaphone: Essays

by George Saunders
Riverhead, 257 pp., $14 (paper)

"Art, at its best, is a kind of uncontrolled yet disciplined Yelp, made by one of us who, because of the brain he was born with and the experiences he has had and the training he has received, is able to emit a Yelp that contains all of the joys, miseries, and contradictions of life as it is actually lived," wrote George Saunders in his 2001 introduction to the Modern Library edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Yeah. He's great. He goes on. "That Yelp, which is not a logical sound, does good for all of us."

Collected here alongside appreciations of Donald Barthelme, Esther Forbes, and Kurt Vonnegut, "The United States of Huck" finds Saunders struggling with a writer he admires and has been mentioned in the same breath as. His familiar quibble (or, in some circles, deal-breaking beef) with the otherwise Great American Yelp's ending, for instance, fades among his bigger questions about Mark Twain's motivation, intent, and politics, which themselves fall away in the face of the biggest question that Huckleberry Finn and, ultimately, The Braindead Megaphone puts to us: "How can anybody be truly free in a country as violent and stupid as ours?"

Reading Saunders' nonfiction work – significant reportage, stirring essay, and the customary throwaways – all at once means that by the time such a question hits home, we're already in Nepal, where he covered the "Buddha Boy" – a 15-year-old who sat under a tree from late 2004 to early 2006, meditation his only sustenance, light shooting out of his forehead between snake bites and visits from pilgrims – for GQ. The shudder and wonder of Twain's Mississippi River follows Saunders to the Himalayas, where he confronts samsara, our "wanting and rewanting," along with the realization that a "human being is someone who, having lived awhile, becomes terrified and, having become terrified, deeply craves an end to the fear." In this piece and others – "The New Mecca," a bizarre walk around Dubai, and "The Great Divider," a somehow more bizarre walk along the U.S.-Mexico border, both also for GQ; the titular counterattack on weak-minded strong-signal media; and even the parodic "Ask the Optimist!" for The New Yorker's Shouts and Murmurs – the author discovers that how a human being responds when he sees there are no grand answers, no end to the fear, is all he's really got to go on. It's not much, but, like Saunders' Yelps, it sure is something.

Saturday, Nov. 3, 3:30pm
Capitol Auditorium Room E1.004
Lit Smackdown: Fiction vs. Nonfiction
Saturday, Nov. 3, 8pm
Gallery at the Continental Club (1315 S. Congress)

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