I picked up this collection of stories, currently published only in the US but available everywhere thanks to the wonders of the internet, through a passing recommendation on Scott Pack’s blog. And it certainly isn’t the sort of book you would pick up in the shops (er, if it were available in UK shops) from looking at the cover. The cover is so bad that it can only be the result of concerted effort. It says not so much try me as put me back and shoot me. Now enough.
Having had my expectations raised by Pack’s recommendation, and then lowered by the cover, I found they settled pretty much in the middle and remained there undisturbed. Pack compares The Littlest Hitler (favourably) with the work of George Saunders: an apt comparison to be sure, but for me it fell somewhat short of Saunders’ brilliance.
The differences are in language and in subtlety. With George Saunders, the language is an essential part – almost a character in itself – of each story, perfectly fused with the ideas. Ryan Boudinot seems much more interested in the ideas rather than how they are expressed, and the writing, while always competent, didn’t make me shiver and squirm in pleasure as Saunders’ stuff does.
Also, Boudinot tends to go for the broad approach to his settings, eschewing the middle ground of Saundersesque plausible-but-silly corporate hell (see Pastoralia) for more outlandish proposals, such as working with a dead guy (Contaminant) or a US where teenagers ‘serve their country’ by killing their parents, for which they are rewarded with a place in their desired college (Civilization). Here, any satirical intent is blocked and blunted by the sheer arbitrariness of the ideas. There is not enough to connect to.
However, when he’s good, Boudinot is clever, funny and thought-provoking; and this invariably occurs in the more human and realistic (relatively speaking) stories. In Drugs and Toys, a lonely shopkeeper gives his life purpose by providing, well, really excellent customer service, and there are moments of real pathos amid the humour and absurdity. In the title story, a boy who dresses up as Hitler for a school Hallowe’en parade experiences the sharp end of prejudice. In On Sex and Relationships, the perversity of human behaviour is wittily exposed, when a couple hosting a dinner party have a conflict with their family-planning schedule:
The thermometer beeped and Julianne looked at the read-out. “Darling?” she said. “It appears I’m ovulating.”
“It’s not the spicy curry?” Bob said.
“I’m pretty sure not,” Julianne said.
I couldn’t tell whether this suposed to be was a hint that Katherine and I should leave. We picked at the edges of coasters swiped from a brew pub. Bob said, “Well I guess we should go upstairs and make a baby then.” We all laughed. Our friends rose from the couch.
“So yeah, we’ll just take off,” Katherine said.
“Oh no, no, we want you to stay,” Julianne said. “I’ve been dying for a chance to play the new edition of Cranium. You guys stay put. This shouldn’t take long at all.”
“Not that, well, usually -” Bob said.
“There’s Ben & Jerry’s in the freezer,” Julianne said as they hurried up the stairs. “Totally help yourselves.”
Even in the weaker stories, Boudinot has a knack or gift for injecting a little pathos into the ending, turning the wackiness down and the beauty up, and producing a more satisfying experience in the end than you were expecting. Who’d have thought a piece of silliness like Civilization would end with a muted line like “My life’s true pleasures I have found in the remains of this lost, proud culture, in the solitude of their beautiful tombs”?
There are so many current references (Xboxes, Napster, CD-Rs), however, that if the book is still being read into twenty years’ time – and Boudinot is certainly a writer to watch – future editions will need to have flurries of footnotes settled at the bottom of each page, like dandruff.