One Story Magazine recently listed their top ten favorite short stories, along with an additional twenty-six stories to flush out the “long list.” Sea Oak by George Saunders made the long list.
Sea Oak is a disjointed comic story in more ways than one. I have to admit that my first attempt at reading this did not go well. Maybe I was tired, but the satire was a bit over the top in some ways. On my second reading, earlier during the next day, I stuck with this piece and it took off when Aunt Bernice died. Or I should say when she returned from the dead.
The story is about a poor family living in the projects, and the characters appear to be stereotypes. The two sisters are both unwed mothers. They sit around the house ingesting crappy television shows and processed food. Their brother, the narrator, works in some sort of strip show. The one sister says, “If we had our diplomas we could just watch TV and not be all distracted.” The sisters debate how many sides make up a triangle. The family lives in a deplorable housing project called Sea Oak. “There’s an ad hoc crack house in the laundry room and last week Min found brass knuckles in the kiddie pool.” Saunder’s description of the scene in the projects is both funny and despairing. There is a hopelessness to their situation.
At one point, Freddy tells them, “You kids make squat. And therefore you live in a dangerous craphole. And what happens in a dangerous craphole? Bad tragic shit. It’s the freaking American Way – you start out in a dangerous craphole and work hard so you can someday move up to a somewhat less dangerous craphole.”
When their Aunt Bernice dies, they don’t have money for a proper funeral. They have to purchase a casket made of balsa. Shortly after the funeral, a priest tells them Bernice’s body has been stolen. Bernice returns to the apartment in Christ-like fashion and gives the family explicit advice on how to get out of their dire situation.
Bernice continues rotting in their apartment. As her limbs fall off, she spouts out words of wisdom on how to get ahead in life. “Go show your cock!” She continually tells Thomas. She basically is implying the only way to get ahead in the world is to prostitute oneself. Although she died a virgin, Aunt Bernice is now regretting that she sacrificed her life to care for others and didn’t live more herself.
Not being an avid reader of satire, I found myself at first wondering about the stereotypes during the first part of the story, but as the story unfolded I saw Saunder’s commentary is truly scathing and covers a number of themes: poverty, capitalism and religion. It’s a very worthwhile read.
Out of the One Story list of 36 recommended stories, this was the 19th story I’ve written about this summer.