Short story: “Puppy”

by look i have opinions

“Puppy,” by George Saunders

From the May 28, 2007 New Yorker, online here; also appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2008

3,350 words

An amazingly funny and painful study in well-meaning cruelty. Marie has compassion without understanding; she sees Callie and Bo only through the lens of her own experiences. Her knee-jerk reaction will almost certainly cause the boy to lose his family and his best caretaker.

One flaw stood out for me. When the point of view first moved from Marie to Callie, I was disoriented by the impression that their voices were essentially the same. Rereading more carefully, I see that the two are technically pretty well differentiated:

Marie’s POV

Oh, God, what a beautiful world! The autumn colors, that glinting river, that lead-colored cloud pointing down like a rounded arrow at that half-remodelled McDonald’s standing above I-90 like a castle.

[…]

Thank you, Lord, she thought, as the Lexus flew through the cornfield. You have given me so much: struggles and the strength to overcome them; grace, and new chances every day to spread that grace around.

Callie’s POV

Yes. Awesome. It was still solved so perfect.

There was plenty for him to do back there. A yard could be a whole world, like her yard when she was a kid had been a whole world.

And yet they still sound alike. They have the same ebullient optimism, they make similar mental jokes (pot smoking), and Callie’s POV sounds eerily like Marie’s in the line “It was just one of the weird things about the Wonder That Was Her, ha ha ha.” It’s important that the two women be similar—it underlines the tragedy of their missed connection—but I think the story would be better if their superficial differences came across more strongly from the beginning, to avoid distracting the reader and undermining the distinctness of the characters.

Part of the sameness is probably due to the author’s attempt to build up readers’ sympathy for Callie. The first Callie section “hides” the details that disturb Marie so much and which might be expected to disturb us snooty New Yorker readers too—fair enough. Still, Callie’s POV ought to have its own distinct feel, and I don’t think it does.

(For the record, I think Callie’s home sounds comfortable and the tether idea is brilliant. Certainly no more troubling than medicating or playpenning or institutionalizing a child. Desperate circumstances, etc.)

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