George Saunders the beloved cult author known for surreal short stories about American nuttiness is the master of joy bombs: little explosions of grin-stimulating genius that he buries throughout his deeply thoughtful, endlessly entertaining flights of imagination. His fourth story collection, Tenth of December, brims with laboriously constructed nuggets that will make you beam with unmitigated glee when you stumble upon them in context. Here's one: ''Although, problem: if he went back to hand-pluck the microclods, he'd leave an incriminating new trail of microclods.'' Or this: ''And they left, neither knowing how close they had come to getting Darkenfloxxed™ out their wing-wangs.'' One more: ''It smelled of man sweat and spaghetti sauce and old books. Like a library where sweaty men went to cook spaghetti.''
Tempting as it is to fill this space with Saunders' one-liners, there's way more happening here than wing-wangs and microclods. Most of Tenth of December's stories are about characters struggling with moral questions: whether to do the right thing, how to go about it, what the right thing even might be. Some of these dilemmas are distinctly Saundersian. A convict, sentenced to some sort of pharmaceutical-research prison, is ordered to give someone a probably fatal drug. A father deals with complications after buying ''SGs,'' which turn out to be women from Third World countries strung together with a wire through their heads and hung up as human lawn ornaments. But much of the book finds Saunders toning down his trademark weirdness most notably in a pair of stories that bookend the collection, both featuring kids faced with crucial decisions when tested by life-and-death situations. While some fans might miss the demented brilliance of ''orange/Grammy/man-briefly-involved-with-a-Ding-Dong/piles-of-mush/penisless-man coalition''-style Saunders in the book's more reality-grounded tales, Tenth of December still offers an irresistible mix of humor and humanity. A
''What the hell? What was he doing on the ground? Had he tripped? Did someone wonk him? Did a branch fall? God damn. He touched his head. His hand came away bloody.''