March 11, 1996 12:00 PM

by George Saunders

Six short stories and a novella make up this extraordinary collection. All are first-person narratives in which voices rise, often hilariously, from a world of gothic lunacy. Saunders’ narrators are memorable—squeamish readers be warned. Take, for example, the obese executive of “The 400-Pound CEO,” now languishing in jail: “So now I know…the body odor of Vic, a Chicago kingpin who’s claimed me for his own and compels me to wear a feminine hat with fruit on the brim for nightly interludes.”

Minor figures are also striking. In the book’s opening piece we meet Downtrodden Mary, the 92-year-old cleaning lady at a fictional theme park: “How I remember sex with Herb, the one good man I’ve known…. How we experimented in his trailer before my husband Bud and his repulsive gangster friends slit his throat…. After killing Herb, the lot of them came over to our place for dinner as usual.” CivilWarLand is best not read at one sitting; an overload of grotesquerie becomes apparent. But Saunders, 37, is a singular new voice, a blazing talent who should be read. (Random House, $21)

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