Puppy by George Saunders is thought-provoking. The story alternates between the perspective of two mothers, Marie and Callie, whose sons have behavioral disorders.
Puppy begins by looking into the life of Marie. She is a suburban mother who keeps her son; Josh’s violent outbursts under control by having him glued to a video game. Marie’s childhood had been less than perfect – she had been left standing in a blizzard for two hours and told she is not college material by her parents, so Marie desires to be a better parent to her children than her parents ever were to her, which inadvertently leaves her kids spoiled. Marie’s husband seems to have deep pockets – “you could bring home a hippo you’d put on a credit card and he’d just say “Ho HO!” and ask what the creature ate and what hours it slept and what the heck they were going to name the little bugger” – so that’s also convenient for Marie when it comes to pleasing her kids.
Unlike Marie’s family, Callie’s family is not well-off. It seems like they barely have enough to scrape by. The two mothers’ paths cross when Marie and her kids visit Callie’s house to buy a puppy. Marie is amused by the ‘white-trashiness’ in the house and considers it to be “a super field trip for the kids,” and all goes well until Marie sees a boy chained to a tree. This puts Marie off-guard as it reminds her of her childhood, so she flees with her kids without buying the puppy, mumbling to Callie something about her “feeling being that one really shouldn’t possess something if one wasn’t up to properly caring for it.”
What ensued after this in Puppy is what made me realize how brilliant Saunders is. When it is easy to cast aside Callie as a bad mother who treats her child inhumanly, Saunders compels us to look beyond the obvious. Bo, Callie’s son, who she had chained to a tree is a kid with issues. Bo is an outdoorsy kid, but when left to his own devices he has a habit of darting across the road on the interstate. His body doesn’t react well to medication, and he is miserable when he is kept indoors, so what can the poor mother do when she can’t afford to hire help to keep an eye on the kid when she is busy with work? Seeing the situation from her perspective makes it difficult to not empathize with her. Callie’s methods may be questionable, but when you read the story, you know she loves Bo fiercely, the same way Marie loves Josh. In Callie’s words, “When Bo got older, it would be different. Then he’d need his freedom. But now he just needed not to get killed.”
I wish Marie and Callie had a chance to see how alike they are. Together they might have even been able to come up with better solutions for their sons’ problems!