Author George Saunders packs them in at a Brooklyn launch for his latest collection

Saunders meeting fans at Greenlight Bookstore. (Miranda Popkey)
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“I do a lot of readings and I notice that the person who asks the first question is always the person with the highest sexual energy in the room.”

There are few authors who could begin a Q&A session—especially one directly following a reading that included a casually explicit sex scene—with such words without casting a pall over the room. George Saunders is one.

Like David Lynch, whose affable style in interviews stands in sharp contrast to the dark, even perverse themes of his films, or David Foster Wallace (to whom Saunders has been compared) who never shied away from the horrifying in his prose, but was eternally good-natured in his interactions with the reading public, Saunders, so provocative in print, projects, in person, an aw-shucks Midwestern charm—in his mouth, the phrase “the New York Times” sounds more like “da New York Times”—that would prompt incredulity if it weren’t so obviously genuine.

Saunders has long been considered a writer’s writer. His stories are a bit too absurd and their themes are a bit too satirical to gain him a broad readership: in “Sea Oak,” from his 2000 collection Pastoralia, a family member proves to be much more formidable in death than in life, cursing and barking orders from beyond the grave; in the recently published “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the titular girls are immigrants from third-world countries contracted as lawn ornaments by well-to-do Americans; for a price, you can run a (harmless) thread through their heads and have them float above your yard.

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But the release of his latest collection, Tenth of December, hailed as the “Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” by the New York Times Magazine, is poised to make a mainstream success out of this cult favorite.

Or so the presence of more than 300 people at the book’s launch Thursday night at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn seemed to imply.

Though the event wasn’t slated to begin until 7:30, by 6:20, about 30 people had already gathered; by 6:40, staff members were encouraging fans to move to the back; by 10 after seven, the crowd had been warned that copies of Tenth of December were running low. (Greenlight sold out of the 300 they had on hand for the event.)

Brooklyn-based author Ralph Baker, who was taking the crowded room as an opportunity to hand out postcards advertising his own book, Shock Exchange: How Inner-City Kids From Brooklyn Predicted the Great Recession and the Pain Ahead, compared the scene to “a rock-star type of atmosphere. I expect to see Miles Davis or something like that.”

There were the die-hards: an aspiring writer named Elizabeth who had taken the day off work and driven into the city from suburban Pennsylvania with her fiancé. There were the converts: a woman named Catherine, who admitted, as she waited patiently for her turn with the author: “I’ve never bothered actually waiting for a book signing here before, so if that says something….” There were the former students of Saunders like Kit Frick, who happily confirmed that, “George is just a really, really great human being … in addition to being such a great writer, which everyone knows, he’s probably one of the best teachers that I’ve ever had and I think that it’s pretty hard to find—most celebrity faculty members and not necessarily the best teachers, that’s not necessarily why they’re there, and George is just such a rare exception to that rule.” And there was a genuine movie star—Susan Sarandon, glimpsed briefly, tucked into a one of the store’s front corners.

It might have been an occasion for panic, or at the very least, a bit of shoving. But, perhaps under the influence of the beneficent glow lent by Saunders himself, the mood in the room was both exuberant and unfailingly polite.

Saunders’s pleasant demeanor may stand in sharp contrast to the content of most of his stories— but his characters also always read as recognizably human, no matter the absurdity of the situations in which they’ve been placed or how, in one audience member’s words, “grotesque he gets.”

And seeing the author himself—in a crisp white dress shirt, skinny black tie, and suit jacket; slender glasses perched on his nose, longish, thinning hair swept back from his forehead—grinningly, winningly read from “Escape from Spiderhead,” in which prisoners are made to participate in a series of increasingly horrifying clinical trials meant to test the effect of cunningly named drugs—Darkenfloxx, Vivistif—illuminated the complexity and force of this relationship: between the emotional reality his characters exhibit and the patently unrealistic environments they inhabit.

His reading of “Escape” was completely disarming: on the one hand, it brought out the story’s humor; on the other, it fully animated the average-guy narrator. Potentially salacious lines—“she was beneath me now, legs way up”—became casual, descriptive asides; a gentle head shake at the phrase “making love” communicated the narrator’s naïve surprise.

The reading lasted no longer than 10 minutes, and during the four-question-long Q&A that followed, Saunders did something almost unheard of: He answered thoughtfully.

His replies employed strange similes:

“If I get into any kind of space where I’m trying to extend a narrative, or kind of accrue pages, the energy goes out,” he said in response to a question about whether he will write a novel. “So I think of my stories as kind of like those little toys and you wind ’em up and put it on the floor and it goes under the couch. That’s kind of like an aesthetic model. So, I think what we have to do is petition for the definition of novel to come down a little, you know: 17 pages, that’s a good number”.

He told childhood stories:

“I used to be a big hockey fan although I didn’t know how to skate, so I would—we had a lot of linoleum in the house, even the dog was linoleum—and so I would just kind of get socks on and skate around and play hockey and narrate it in my head, which I’m hoping everyone here has done some version of.”

He explained some of the precepts which govern his writing:

“I know when I was younger and I was trying to do stream of [consciousness], or, you know, kinds of characters, I would get a little over-intellectual about it. I had to go live with the circus for three years if I was going to do the bearded lady or whatever. And now I think that maybe what we do—the tricks are kind of small, sleight of hand. So 90 percent of what you’re doing is what you already know.”

He was endearingly gracious: asked about the last thing that had surprised him he admitted, “Um, walking in here tonight was a pretty big surprise.”