The Barber’s Unhappiness by George Saunders, 1999
The magic trick:
A happy ending that leaves the reader with no confidence in the characters’ future happiness
Very good story today. This is one of my favorites.
In it, we meet a very unlikeable character. The barber of the story’s title objectifies women, demonstrates borderline predatory behavior with the way he uses his salon to win dates, is sex-obsessed and laughably hypocritical with the way he considers and rejects women on the basis of their appearance. He seems to forget, of course, that he is a round middle-aged man with thin hair who lives with his mom.
And yet… dare I say, we like him? We root for him?
Maybe you don’t. I did, though. Saunders does a great job of showing us the bad things in this man’s life, the things over which he has zero control. The reader’s sympathy builds every time the barber’s mother talks.
Anyway, it all builds to a remarkable conclusion. Maybe it’s that every story in the Pastoralia is pretty bleak, but I kept waiting for something to go wrong. This woman isn’t going to like the barber. The barber won’t go to the party. The barber will say something wrong. His mother will talk him out of it. Etc., etc. etc. But things keep working out all right. Sorry for the spoiler, but they do. They keep working out right all the way up through the end of the story.
So why did I close the book with a sense of dread and gloom for the barber and his new love? That’s a pretty good magic trick, right?
Saunders peppers the story with memories, anecdotes and thoughts from the barber’s mind that make it clear just how incapable he is at maintaining a healthy, loving relationship. He just isn’t equipped for such happy endings.
If I had to bet $100 on it, I’d give their new relationship a month at the max. So that’s a pretty unhappy happy ending then, huh? And that’s quite a trick on Saunders’s part.
Next to the white-haired woman was a pretty girl. A very pretty girl. Wow. One of the prettiest girls the barber had ever seen. Boy was she pretty. Her hair was crimped and waist-length and her eyes were doelike and Egyptian and about her there was a sincerity and intelligence that made it hard for him to look away. She certainly looked out of place here at the conference table, with one hand before her in a strip of sun- light which shone on a very pretty turquoise ring that seemed to confirm her as someone exotic and darkish and schooled in things Eastern, someone you could easily imagine making love to on a barge on the Nile, say, surrounded by thousands of candles that smelled weird, or come to think of it maybe she was American Indian, and he saw her standing at the door of a tepee wearing that same sincere and intelligent expression as he came home from the hunt with a long string of dead rabbits, having been accepted into the tribe at her request after killing a cute rabbit publicly to prove he was a man of the woods, or actually they had let him skip the rabbit part because he had spoken to them so frankly about the white man’s deviousness and given them secret in- formation about an important fort after first making them promise not to kill any women or children. He pictured one of the braves saying to her, as she rubbed two corncobs together in the dying sunlight near a spectacular mesa, that she was lucky to have the barber, and silently she smiled, rubbing the corncobs together perhaps a little faster, remembering the barber naked in their tepee, although on closer inspection it appeared she was actually probably Italian.
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