Literary criticism, at least of a kind, meets literary memoir in this airy essay by novelist Holdefer (Dick Cheney in Shorts, 2017, etc.).
“It’s an eyewitness account of how one writer found sustenance in another writer.” Thus the author’s précis of this slender book, a volume in a series devoted to the influence a particular volume has had on some other writer. George Saunders, of Lincoln in the Bardo fame, has been late coming to renown. As Holdefer notes, he was 58 years old when he published his first novel, though eight books of short stories preceded it, and his working-class background and training as an engineer set him apart from the “yappy kennel of middle-class English majors” who, at least by Holdefer’s reckoning, constitute the bulk of American literary writers. Holdefer, himself a working-class Midwesterner, has some grudging feelings about all that as well as about the indifference that has greeted some of his own writings. He wanders back and forth between his own work and experiences, a life measured out in bangings on the typewriter (back in the days before computers) and table scraps, and Saunders’ book of stories Pastoralia, which Holdefer concludes is quite dystopian. Some of the author’s thoughts are obvious and mannered: “Anyone who frequently refers to Isaac Babel in interviews is not (or is not only) a ‘regular guy’ ” is a bit much, as is the shopworn apercu, “the short story form requires no apology.” Still, when Holdefer hits the mark, it’s worth the wait, as when he discusses how Saunders manages to craft believable characters at least in part by allowing them to do stupid things without de facto making them stupid. In the end, though, it’s mostly a book by which to learn about Holdefer, not about Saunders—not a bad thing, necessarily, but of rather narrow appeal.
It’s no U and I, but it has its moments.