The freakish, cowed characters filling Saunders's acclaimed debut, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1995), have spawned a new crop of unhappy, scabrously comic campers in these six stories, as the struggle among them to be happy and do the right thing continues.
Only the novella-length title story echoes the futuristic feel of CivilWarLand, featuring a theme park complete with a live-caveman display. In the cave are two enactors, the narrator and an older woman, Janet. Although expected to live on-site and stay in their roles all day, whether anyone visits or not, Janet cannot, and the narrator’s supervisor pressures him to rat on her. He resists for a long time, feeling sorry for Janet and her now-jailed addict son, yet he finally gives in, which he regrets when she loses it and calls a hectoring visitor a “suckass.” Other pieces involve seemingly normal places, home to conflicted men such as Neil in `Winky,` who lives with his sweet, mentally challenged sister and attends a self-help seminar to find a way to tell her to move out. Or boys like Cody in `The End of Firpo in the World,` whose anger at being belittled by his mom and her boyfriend boils over when neighborhood kids laugh at him, and whose desire for revenge results in an accident, unfortunately fatal. There is some hope, however, in `The Barber's Unhappiness,` when a lonely, toeless barber overcomes his repugnance at the size of a woman he met in a driving-safety course enough to date her. Finally, `Sea Oak,` even more fanciful and bizarre than its fellow tales, depicts a stripper-waiter who must deal with his aunt when she returns from the dead, wondering why she never had any fun.
Being inside the teeming heads of these folks is amusing and enlightening. So accurately are they rendered, in all their flawed glory, that they appear not only perfectly human but familiar.