“Victory Lap,” by George Saunders
Maybe 5,000 words??—short version is around 3,400
Appeared in the New Yorker on October 5th, 2009 (subscribers can read online here, but I regret to say I am not a subscriber); collected in Tenth of December, which is what I’m reading/listening to now; also found a very different, shorter version online on Longform
Unlike “Puppy,”* this piece strikes me as differentiating effectively between the three characters’ points of view, even though they all have a similar Saundersian goofiness. Of course, I might be biased by the audio recording.
I’m not crazy about how closely this story follows the classic, cliché female victim/male hero model. The story opens with Alison’s naive, self-aggrandizing fantasies; Kyle’s first section shows him to be a genuine innocent who deserves a better life than he has. Alison judges Kyle harshly for his looks and eccentricity; Kyle idolizes her for her beauty. Alison gets “punished” by the narrative, and as a direct result, she realizes how much she’s misjudged Kyle, her friend and rescuer. It’s never quite implied that the two will end up romantically involved, but the possibility is never averted either. At the very end, the story wisely dwells on Alison’s attempt to recover from her trauma, and on her own small act of heroism. But if we’re looking for some kind of closure for the romantic nonsense in the opening, we have to look at this final scene, in which she’s wholly preoccupied with Kyle—his moral choices, his growth as a person, his safety. And we’re used to the sort of story where the girl’s feelings for the boy are treated as his rightful reward.
On the other hand, we spend more time on Alison’s moral fantasies than her romantic ones, so it makes sense that her running outside to shout at Kyle would be the pivotal point of the story for her. At the beginning, she believes in goodness and moral courage, and at the end, her faith has been vindicated.
The Longform version is missing the sections in Kyle’s point of view, which makes me wonder whether Saunders added them in later or took them out. I think I might have preferred the shorter version. I like Kyle’s parts a lot, but he kind of steals the protagonist role. He takes action sooner and more dramatically than Alison does, and the way his character changes is bigger and more positive. Even the title belongs to him, not to Alison.
All that aside, I’m pretty impressed with the way this story works. Each section break switches voices gracefully. Each voice is distinct and fun to read for its own sake, even the slightly cliché rapist-murderer. Maybe he wouldn’t be as much fun if he weren’t slightly cliché, if his hokeyness (abusive stepfather, Biblical delusions of grandeur) didn’t take some of the stuffing out of his scariness.
Here’s a type of transition I find tricky to carry off: “For months afterward she had nightmares in which Kyle brought the rock down.” How does that work so well? It comes four paragraphs (163 words) after a section break. Alison’s point of view is familiar and a relief, jumping from one idea to another in her characteristic fashion. The transition is the opening sentence of the fifth paragraph. And it doesn’t break the tension, either; we still have to find out what really happened and how Alison is recovering.
*Apparently that was two years ago. In my defense, I’ve spent the last two years reading a bunch of other stuff—it’s not like I decided not to read any George Saunders for a while.