Suspend Your Disbelief

Stories We Love: “Sticks,” by George Saunders

"I’ve read 'Sticks' so many times, I’ve accidentally memorized it."

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Stories We Love: “Sticks,” by George Saunders

Josie Tolin on how George Saunders uses a sense of familial inevitability "to both subvert and amplify what might otherwise be a run-of-the-mill, bad-dad situation" in his story "Sticks."

“It’s unavoidable. It just happens. When you grow up, your heart dies.”

These lines are spoken by Ally Sheedy’s character in the scene from The Breakfast Club where the kids are heart-to-hearting about how they don’t want to become their parents. She’s crying, and Judd Nelson’s like, “Who cares?” To which Sheedy responds, “I care.”

Despite Nelson being twenty-five and looking it, I believed this scene each of the ten times I watched this movie with my brothers, and I believe it now. The idea that we inherit latent tendencies to be activated, in time, by age and jadedness, is terrifying. But it’s even worse for fiction writers: does it count as character development if your characters are simply slouching towards a fate pre-determined by their parents?

In his 392-word masterpiece, “Sticks,” George Saunders uses this sense of familial inevitability to both subvert and amplify what might otherwise be a run-of-the-mill, bad-dad situation. He begins with trademark Saunders absurdity:

Every year Thanksgiving night we flocked out behind Dad as he dragged the Santa suit to the road and draped it over a kind of crucifix he’d built out of metal pole in the yard. Super Bowl week the pole was dressed in a jersey and Rod’s helmet and Rod had to clear it with Dad if he wanted to take the helmet off. On the Fourth of July the pole was Uncle Sam, on Veteran’s Day a soldier, on Halloween a ghost.

The humor here is soon inflected with something darker, however, as we learn of the man’s authoritative parenting and bad temperament:

The pole was Dad’s only concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. One Christmas Eve he shrieked at Kimmie for wasting an apple slice. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup saying: good enough good enough good enough. Birthday parties consisted of cupcakes, no ice cream.

And by the second half, the pole has becoming something else entirely—no longer simply used to commemorate sporting events and holidays:

Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic. He draped some kind of fur over it on Groundhog Day and lugged out a floodlight to ensure a shadow. When an earthquake struck Chile he lay the pole on its side and spray painted a rift in the earth. Mom died and he dressed the pole as Death and hung from the crossbar photos of Mom as a baby. We’d stop by and find odd talismans from his youth arranged around the base: army medals, theater tickets, old sweatshirts, tubes of Mom’s makeup.

I wish I remembered absolutely anything about the day I first read this story—my surroundings, the weather, my mood. I was in high school, a period of my life I’ve either tucked or attempted to tuck into an embarrassing “Puberty” file somewhere in my brain. What I do know is this: I’ve read “Sticks” so many times, I’ve accidentally memorized it. I’m obsessed with the father’s obsession, the way the pole has become the only way he can communicate.

Even in the man’s most desperate dying days, as the story concludes, he’s still unable to apologize directly to his children, relying on the pole to deliver the message instead:

One autumn he painted the pole bright yellow. He covered it with cotton swabs that winter for warmth and provided offspring by hammering in six crossed sticks around the yard. He ran lengths of string between the pole and the sticks, and taped to the string letters of apology, admissions of error, pleas for understanding, all written in a frantic hand on index cards. He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died in the hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and the sticks and left them by the road on garbage day.

That’s the end of the story. In fact, I’ve quoted nearly the entire thing so far. Minus this line, which appears exactly in the center of the piece, pivoting us into the second and final paragraph: “We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us.”

Flannery O’Connor famously said that good endings should be “surprising yet inevitable.” While the ending of “Sticks” certainly fits this criteria, I can’t help but think that the same could be said of this line. Or, rather, how this line is what makes the ending feel that way.

But despite how that sentiment inflects the ending, there’s another way to read the final sentences; a more hopeful way, I think. Here’s this emotionally ill-equipped, control-freak of a father, his actions finally guided by emotion as his life comes to an end. It may not be the apology of his children’s dreams, but it’s self-aware and it’s something. And “something” counts, especially from a man who’s been stuck in his ways for as long as any of his kids can remember. The pole, once “Dad’s one concession to glee,” is transformed into some sort of priest-less confessional. As parents and children succumb to their destinies in this dysfunctional family story, perhaps there is someone—something—experiencing true character development: the pole.

Who am I to know? I overread everything—text messages, emails, rejection letters from things I forgot I even applied to. But my grandfather told me he loved me a few months before he died and it was the only time he’d ever told me. It was nice to hear, but it didn’t really matter because I already knew. He wasn’t different for telling me; the only thing that was different was that he was dying. So, I hope we can’t call the father’s trajectory in “Sticks” character development. I hope he’d always loved each of his children and just wanted to make sure they knew it before he died. And if they don’t know already, I hope they know by the end of the story, when they see themselves in the “six crossed sticks” their father plants around the yard. I hope the father didn’t mean to be awful, that the awfulness was unavoidable. I hope he’s always cared, and I believe he may have.

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