I’ve been thinking about a George Saunders story called “Christmas.” The narrator of the story is part of a roofing crew, a crew that includes a forty-two-year-old, down-on-his-luck, “gentle-voiced” man named John. The higher-ups ride John hard (“You roof like my mother,” one of them says. “Maybe your mother roofs good,” John replies), and eventually they hustle him out of his paycheck and his Christmas bonus.* At the end of the story, the narrator, having taken advantage of some breaks John will never be afforded, imagines “laughing about the fact that I, an Assistant Curator at the famous Field Museum, was once a joke of a roofer, a joke of a roofer so beat down he once stood by watching as a nice man got cheated out of his Christmas.” It’s the saddest laughter in the world.
“Why do some people get everything and I got nothing?” That’s the question Aunt Bernie, returned from the grave, asks in an earlier Saunders story, “Sea Oak.” It’s a question that Timothy Egan takes up in his most recent Times opinion piece. After noting that the House has passed a measure to eliminate food aid for four million Americans while allowing unemployment benefits to expire for 1.3 million, Egan adds: “These actions have nothing to do with bringing federal spending into line, and everything to do with a view that poor people are morally inferior.” So there’s an answer for Aunt Bernie. Another answer comes from Mike Bloomberg: “That’s just the way God works. Sometimes some of us are lucky, and some of us are not.” Egan doesn’t bother providing Bloomberg’s net worth, since it’s well known to be in the got-everything range. (OK, since you’re wondering: $31 billion.)
Last night, for the first time, my three-year-old daughter watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas. She focused on the Grinch’s big-hearted turn; I focused on how unfreaked-out the Whos were to find their homes invaded. But I also thought about forgiveness. I mean, the Whos aren’t rock-heads, presumably; they have to make a conscious decision to forgive the Grinch. And they do so, in no time at all. Just as Bob Cratchit forgives Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Just as we might forgive certain members of Congress (those who, from their perch on Mt. Crumpit, imagine unemployment assistance as a “disservice” to the poor) if only they’d have a change of heart, or heart size. If only they’d allow themselves to be instructed by ghosts. If only they’d read George Saunders instead of their campaign-donor spreadsheets.
* Describing the Christmas party that serves as the setting for John’s fall, Saunders gives a master class on adverb usage: “Tonight, festively, the dog was locked in the cab of a truck. Now and then he would hurl himself against the windshield and somebody, festively, would fling at the windshield a plastic fork or hamburger bun.”