By Simon Rich
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Twenty years ago, Barney the Dinosaur told the nation's children they were special. We're still paying the price.
From "one of the funniest writers in America" comes a collection of stories culled from the front lines of the millennial culture wars (Jimmy So, Daily Beast). Rife with failing rock bands, student loans, and participation trophies, Spoiled Brats is about a generation of narcissists — and the well-meaning boomers who made them that way.
A hardworking immigrant is preserved for a century in pickle brine. A helicopter mom strives to educate her demon son. And a family of hamsters struggles to survive in a private-school homeroom. Surreal, shrewd, and surprisingly warm, these stories are as resonant as they are hilarious.
Table of Contents
Reading Group Guide
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They buried my wife in a shoe box in Central Park. I like to imagine that the funeral was respectful, that her body was treated with a modicum of dignity. But of course I'll never know. I wasn't invited to the ceremony. Instead, the guests of honor were the students of homeroom 2K.
When the children returned from the burial, they drew "tributes" to my wife in Magic Marker—maudlin scribbles of halos, wings, and harps. It was hard not to vomit as Ms. Hutson taped them up above my cage. I've never seen such tasteless dreck in all my life.
Hailey, I noticed, was crying as she drew. The irony. It was her responsibility to refill our water bottle last week. Instead, she spent all her free time with Alyssa, practicing a clapping game called "Miss Mary Mack."
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack!
All dressed in black, black, black!
It was that inane chant that provided the score to my wife's final moments. She was dying of thirst but never cried once. It was only later that I realized why: her body was too dehydrated to produce tears.
Pocahontas was her name.
My name is Princess Jasmine. I am a male, so this name is humiliating. But I'm aware that my situation could be worse. The other homeroom, 2R, has a guinea pig named Stimpy and an elderly turtle named New Kids on the Block.
Pocahontas left me with three sons, and it's for their sake alone that I keep up my struggle. Every weekday morning, when the monsters run screaming through the door, I hide my babies under scraps of newspaper. Whenever food and water are scarce, I give them my whole portion. Their faces are exact replicas of my wife's, and when I look at them, it helps me remember just how beautiful she was. Their names are Big Mac, Whopper, and Mr. T.
Mr. T was born with developmental problems. He was so small during infancy that we had to shelter him each night, wrapping our bodies around his shivering frame so that he could fall asleep. I've been through a lot. If I lose Mr. T, I'm not sure I'll have the strength to carry on.
It's morning now. The square of sunlight on the blackboard grows and grows. Soon the gremlins will run in howling, hopped-up on Pop-Tarts and primed for violence. For months, I assumed that this school was reserved for juvenile delinquents. But during Parent–Teacher Night, the mink coats and bespoke suits told a different tale. It turns out this school is a private one, an "elite" institution for the children of millionaires.
I can hear the nannies muscling their way through the lobby, dragging their little terrors toward my family. My sons are still asleep. I lick their faces and conceal them as best I can.
The bell clangs harshly. The nightmare begins.
"What time is it?"
My fur bristles as Ms. Hutson takes out the Jobs Board. This laminated poster, with its seventeen colorful squares, rules my family's existence. It determines everything: whether we feast or starve, live or die. I rub my paws impatiently while Ms. Hutson assigns the week's tasks.
"Pencil Organizer this week is… Dylan! Line Leader is… Max! And our two Table Wipers are… Kristen and Sophie!"
Eventually, she gets to the one job that matters.
"Hamster Feeder is…"
I scan the room. There are still some good candidates left. Maybe we'll luck out and get Caitlin? Last month she gave us double portions. If her name is called again, Mr. T might gain some weight in time for winter. It's while I'm enjoying this fantasy that Ms. Hutson clears her throat and—with one little word—sentences my family to death.
My eyes widen with horror. Simon Rich is 2K's "class clown," a pudgy, hyperactive boy with some kind of undiagnosed emotional problem.
"Hamster Feeder?" he shouts. "Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis!"
The other children laugh hysterically.
My God, I think. This is it. This is how it ends.
"Free time's almost over," Ms. Hutson says. "Don't forget to do your jobs!"
I sigh with relief as Simon finally waddles to our cage. He doesn't feed us, though, or replenish our water. Instead, he picks me up by my tail, which is connected directly to my spine. The pain is so searing, it shocks me into a kind of perverse laughter. I did not know my body could hurt this way, that God would allow one of his own creatures to suffer on this level. Simon swings me through the air while singing nonsensically in his high-pitched nasal voice.
I glance at my babies, hidden safely under newspaper. Even at the peak of my agony, I am grateful that Simon has focused his sadism on me. Otherwise, it might be them who suffered.
Free time ends, and Simon drops me back into my cage—from several times my own height. My sons poke their heads through the newspaper. They look around confusedly, then stare at me in dismay. They're used to receiving food at this hour, but I have none to give. Simon has forgotten to do his one basic task. There is still some water left in our bottle from last week, but all it can do is prolong our agony. Without grain, we won't live long.
During science class, Ms. Hutson unveils a large glossy map of the solar system.
"There are nine planets," she says. "Which one do we live on?"
"Mars!" Simon shouts. The other children howl uproariously. This is what passes for wit among them, the basic substitution of one word for another.
"Very funny," Ms. Hutson says, smiling indulgently. "But of course, we really live on Earth, the third planet from the sun. Mars is the fourth planet. And after that one comes Jupiter, Saturn…"
I sigh with misery. It's obvious what's about to happen.
There is a split-second pause, and then the class erupts into full-fledged mayhem. I try to shield my sons from the noise, but it's too late. The monsters have heard a "dirty word" and cannot contain their excitement.
"Uranus!" Simon screams. "Your anus!"
I lock eyes with the teacher, silently willing her to beat him. But all she does is walk across the classroom and turn off the fluorescent lights. Her strategy fails. The children's laughter grows so deafening that I can feel my eardrums throbbing in my skull. Some of the students are standing on their desks, swinging their arms around in a kind of mania.
The chaos gradually subsides, but only because the children grow exhausted. The utterance of the word anus has produced in them pure ecstasy. Several of them are crying real tears.
Ms. Hutson turns the lights back on, and I glance at the clock. The Uranus episode has lasted thirteen minutes. Before the lesson can resume, the bell rings. The spoiled brats run laughing through the door, another day of foolishness behind them.
I watch as my children drink our last remaining drops of water. We'll be lucky to make it through the night.
I awake to the sound of screeching laughter. Sophie and Alyssa have made a dress out of pink construction paper and taped it to my sleeping body.
"You're a pretty girl, Princess Jasmine!" Alyssa says. "A pretty, pretty girl!"
I try to remove the costume, but the tape is double-sided and my paws are too weak to detach it. I must wear this "dress" indefinitely, in the presence of my own sons. I avoid their eyes and they avoid mine. Whatever dignity I had left is surrendered.
During attendance, everyone says "here" except for Simon, who says "not here." Somehow this gets a laugh. For the first time in my life, I think seriously about the option of suicide.
Ms. Hutson starts the day with a geography lesson. She spends ten minutes explaining the concepts of north, south, east, and west. Then she asks the class which country is "north" of the United States. The children stare up at her, completely baffled. Eventually, Jeffrey raises his hand. "Mexico?" he guesses. The teacher smiles at him encouragingly. "Almost!" she says. I watch in stunned silence as she hands the little moron a sticker, as a reward for "trying his best."
"What do we say," Ms. Hutson asks her other students, "when someone tries their very best?"
The children smile and break into a chant.
"That's all right, that's okay, we still love you anyway!"
I vomit bile onto my own legs. I've heard a lot of treacle in this classroom, but this new cheer is so cloying it pushes me over the edge.
The children continue to chant, their voices growing louder and more confident. It's no wonder they're such monsters. They've been taught that they're infallible, as perfect and blameless as gods.
You forgot to feed the hamsters? And brought about their deaths? That's all right, that's okay. We still love you anyway.
During snack time, Simon and three other obese boys have a milk-drinking contest. It's hard to watch as they gorge themselves just inches from my starving children's faces.
Mr. T has begun eating newspaper to dull the pain in his stomach. My other sons sleep all day to conserve energy. For the first two days of our ordeal, I fantasized constantly about food. I hallucinated mounds of grain, piles of nuts, and luscious chunks of apple. Lately, though, I've stopped feeling hungry at all. It's as if my body has given up and braced itself for death.
Teddy wins the milk-drinking contest by downing seven cartons. He immediately throws up.
Ms. Hutson sends him to the nurse and calls for Carlos, the janitor. He arrives within seconds, carrying a tattered mop.
"Hola!" the children shout in unison.
Carlos is a native English-speaker, but the little racists assume that he is foreign-born.
"Hola," Carlos says.
"I need you to take care of something," Ms. Hutson tells him, gesturing at the pile of vomit.
Carlos nods and gets to work. He's still scrubbing twenty minutes later when the final school bell rings.
"Adios!" the children shout as they run by him. "Adios!"
"Adios," he says, his eyes on his work.
Ms. Hutson peeks over his shoulder, her skinny arms folded across her chest.
"Are you going to disinfect the area?" she asks. Carlos forces a smile. He has already begun to disinfect the area but does not want to contradict her.
"Yes, ma'am," he says.
"I don't want that smell hanging around."
"Of course, ma'am."
When all the children are gone, she puts on some lipstick and changes into a pair of high heels.
"My dad's making me see opera," she complains.
Carlos nods awkwardly, unsure of how to respond.
"Don't forget to disinfect the area," she repeats on her way out.
Carlos finishes mopping and then walks from table to table, cleaning up after the fat beasts. The Jobs Board is a total farce, I think as he sponges up their filth. Kristen and Sophie are Table Wipers in name only. At the end of the day, every job on the board belongs to Carlos. The only exception is Line Leader, which of course is a privilege that he will never get to enjoy.
Carlos looks at our cage and curses at the sight of all our feces. I avert my eyes with shame. I know we're not responsible for our prison's deplorable condition, but it's hard not to feel mortified.
As Carlos collects our soiled newspaper, I notice he has several tattoos on his forearm: a few cursive names and a large, ornate crucifix. I, too, am a Christian, although lately I've struggled to make sense of God's plan. I wonder if Carlos's faith is as battered as mine.
He refills our water bottle, and for the first time in days, I allow myself to feel hope. Before he can find our feed bag, though, Principal Davenport runs into the room.
"Carlos, there you are! A fifth grader shat himself in dance. Would you please take care of it?"
Carlos forces another smile and reaches for his mop.
"Of course, sir."
The principal gives him a thumbs-up.
The water tastes so rich, it brings tears to my eyes. As I drink it, I can feel it coursing through my body, giving my parched veins life. I look over at my sons, asleep in their clean cage, their wet little noses twitching with contentment. Carlos has saved our lives. But for how long?
Mercifully, the children are gone this morning. They've been given a break from their arduous studies to enjoy a field day at Randall's Island.
The classroom is blissfully quiet until lunchtime, when the hobgoblins return. Their flabby red faces are streaked with grime and sweat. The smell is almost unendurable. Every child, regardless of fatness, has somehow won an athletic award.
"Boom shaka laka!" Simon shouts as he thrusts his golden prize over his head.
When he walks by my cage, I peek at the engraving on his trophy. PARTICIPATION, it reads. I wonder if Simon is aware that his trophy has no meaning, that all he participated in was a mass delusion.
"Great job, everybody," Ms. Hutson says. "That was some great teamwork today."
"Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis!" Simon says, and everyone laughs, including Ms. Hutson.
The children spend the afternoon playing with their awards. Simon comes up with the ingenious gag of holding his trophy in front of his groin, in an imitation of an adult penis. The other boys applaud him and rush to follow his example. The girls, meanwhile, busy themselves making "outfits" for their trophies out of construction paper. Ms. Hutson encourages this madness, passing out glue and jars of glitter.
Finally, at 3:15 p.m., the nannies come to take the creatures away.
"Don't forget to do your jobs!" Ms. Hutson cries. Simon doesn't even look in our direction. This makes three days straight without food. It's official: we are going to starve to death.
I glance at my sons. Their bodies still have breath, but I can see that something else has died inside them. Mr. T hasn't moved in hours. And this morning I caught Whopper leering at him with a look I wish I could block out of my mind. Taboos are breaking down. If food doesn't come soon, I know, we'll have to make our own.
As another hellish day begins, I gather my sons around me. I've rehearsed my speech all night, but it's still hard to utter the words. Eventually, with painful effort, I manage to force the terrible edict through my lips.
"If Simon forgets to feed us one more time… I want the three of you to eat my body."
Mr. T breaks down and weeps. But Big Mac and Whopper merely nod.
They know it's the only solution we have left.
I can hear Simon's voice before he enters the classroom, as piercing and abrasive as a siren.
"Whatchu talkin' 'bout, Willis!"
His use of this catchphrase has spiked in recent days. It no longer elicits the laughter it once did. In response, Simon has taken to screaming the slogan at full voice in the mad hope that volume might somehow restore the gag's appeal.
"Whatchu talkin' 'bout! Whatchu talkin' 'bout! Whatchu talkin' 'bout!"
He presses his face against the bars of our cage and chants the phrase, again and again, until the words bleed together and begin to lose their meaning. His noxious Doritos breath engulfs me, and I can feel the fury mounting in my chest. I think of the sound of my son weeping and the look my wife gave me as the last bit of life left her eyes.
I have only a little strength left. But it's enough to rise up and sink my teeth into the monster's flesh.
"Words can't express how sorry I am. Safety is our top priority—I'm as appalled as you are that something like this could occur at our school."
"He had to get three stitches! The plastic surgeons say that the scar could be visible for months!"
I roll my eyes as Simon's mother starts to cry.
"He's just a little boy," she says. "And you let him be exposed to wild animals!"
I glance at my sons. They're still alive, but their breathing is shallow and erratic. Our cage has been moved to the principal's office, yet they don't seem aware of the change in our surroundings. "I'm considering pressing charges," Simon's mother prattles on. "My lawyer says I have a real case. Simon had to take a rabies test, and when the nurse pricked his thumb, he cried and cried. The doctor said he'd never seen a boy cry like that."
I smile proudly, thinking of this scene.
"He's going to need therapy," the woman continues. "Lots of it."
"Is there anything I can do," asks the tired principal, "to help regain your family's trust?"
Simon's mother turns toward our cage, her eyes narrowing.
"I want those animals out of the classroom."
Principal Davenport nods. "We'll move them to homeroom 2R."
"That's not enough," she says, her voice lowering. "I want them destroyed."
Principal Davenport clears his throat.
"Of course," he says.
He picks up a phone and calls for Carlos, who arrives within seconds, mop in hand.
"Hola!" the principal says. "Listen. I… uh… need you to take care of something."
I can smell the Dumpster before I see it, an overflowing bin of putrid trash. My nose begins to twitch as I process all the stenches: decomposing Dunkaroos and mold-encrusted Pop-Tarts; rancid, soggy Lunchables and spoiled Nestlé Quik. The monsters have accumulated so much waste this week, and now we're to be added to the pile.
"Sorry, little guys," Carlos says.
He scans the alley to make sure no children are watching. Then he pulls a hammer from his tool belt. I lick my children's faces one last time. I know my act of rebellion has hastened their deaths. But my guilt is assuaged by the knowledge that their suffering will soon be at an end.
Carlos holds the hammer over Mr. T's tiny skull. My son looks up, his eyes half lidded. I pray that he doesn't grasp the situation, that his final moments aren't consumed by fear.
"Sorry, little guys," Carlos says again. "Sorry."
He raises the hammer high, and his sleeve slides down his forearm, exposing his tattoo. He stares at the three cursive names. Then he puts away his weapon, grabs our cage, and runs.
I awake to the sight of three girl humans, gobbling pancakes and chatting rapidly.
"What do we name the babies?"
"Snap, Crackle, and Pop!"
"The mommy should be Mrs. Fluffy or Mrs. Furry or—"
"It's not a mommy," Carlos interrupts. "It's a daddy."
He pours some Cheerios into our cage.
"And we're going to call him Hercules."
All the girls laugh.
Carlos crouches down and looks into my eyes.
"Because he's tough. And strong. And he works long hours, even though it's a living nightmare."
His daughters look at one another nervously.
"Okay," whispers the eldest. "We'll call him Hercules."
Carlos clears his throat and wipes his eyes roughly with his sleeve.
"Good," he says. "Thanks. Now finish your breakfasts, every last bite. I mean it."
When the nurses handed me my son, I couldn't believe how perfect he was. Ben was so robust, nearly fifty inches tall, including horns and tail. Even the doula was impressed.
"My God," she said. "My holy God in heaven."
Alan and I knew instantly that our child was exceptional. He was just so adorable, with his pentagram birthmark and little, grasping claws. His red eyes gleamed with intelligence. When the doctors came in with all their charts, they just confirmed what we already knew. Our child was "one of a kind" and "unlike any creature born of man."
Alan and I were ecstatic—but also a little bit nervous. Raising a gifted child is a huge responsibility. And we were determined not to squander Ben's talents. We vowed then and there that we would do all we could to ensure he achieved his full potential.
The first step was getting him into the right preschool. We figured it would be a breeze, given Ben's obvious star quality. But, to our great surprise, he struggled with the interview requirement. At Trevor Day, a teacher asked him how old he was. Instead of saying "three," he gored open her stomach and then pinned her to the ceiling with his mind. We were able to get him an interview at Trinity, thanks to a family connection. But when Ben saw the crucifix in the lobby, his eyes turned black and the walls wept blood. Why was Ben behaving this way? There was only one logical explanation: attention deficit disorder. We took him to a specialist on Park Avenue, and within five minutes our son had his first prescription for Ritalin.
At first Ben wouldn't take his pills. Padma, our nanny, had to chase him for hours around the apartment, blowing incense in the air to try to scare him down from the ceiling. Sometimes we had no choice but to crush up the pills and slip them into his ram's blood. Within months, though, Ben got used to his medication. He became calmer, more alert, and far less murderous. He was a real joy to be around.
In some ways, Ben still lagged behind most children. He spoke only one word: arrgh. And he was unable to tie his shoes or blink his eyes. We didn't care, though. Because, by the age of five, he'd finally found an outlet for his gifts. Art!
A Slate Best Book of 2014
"I can't recommend any Simon Rich book - especially this one - highly enough. From the hyper-competitive rituals of Scrabble players to the laments of a grieving, widowed hamster in an elementary school classroom, each story in Spoiled Brats opens with a brilliant comedic perspective that only gets funnier, more fascinating, more surprising, and more insightful from there. First-rate comedy with a heartbeat, this is one of my favorite books from one of my favorite authors."—B.J. Novak, author of One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories and star of "The Office"
- "Simon Rich is a comedic shape shifter, adopting the plights of hamsters and hipsters alike, and Spoiled Brats is vividly hilarious in the way Woody Allen and Donald Barthelme are vividly hilarious. Simon Rich is also much taller in real life than you'd think. Like the reverse of an actor."—Sloane Crosley, author of I Was Told There'd Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number
- "Laugh-out-loud funny. [Rich] can conjure authentic, from-the-abdomen laughter on almost every page. He stacks surrealism on top of slick satire on top of pure childish silliness in such a brilliant and condensed way, there are sometimes three laugh-out-loud moments within the same paragraph... This collection of stories isn't simply the funniest book of the year. It might just make us think about the spoiled brats we've become."—The Guardian (UK)
- "I hate Simon Rich, the person. I love Simon Rich, the writer. This book is my favorite one of his yet."—Charles Yu, author of Sorry Please Thank You
- "From the author who brings new meaning to laugh-out-loud, comes a collection of stories about a generation of narcissists and their parents, who only had the best intentions. Rich's uproarious stories will undoubtedly have you nodding in agreement."—Harper's Bazaar
- "A mix of gentle surrealism and smiley satire, the stories are bright, witty, occasionally tart, and just the right side of sappy... Just as most of Woody Allen's prose is given depth by his terror of death, so, as the title suggests, Spoiled Brats attacks the privileged excesses of liberal America in a fashion akin to what we used to call anatomizing their follies."—Telegraph (UK)
- "Hilarious characters... every story rings true."—Library Journal
- "Spoiled Brats might just be the funniest book of the year."—Harper's Bazaar
- "What you can expect from Rich's writing is to be transported to a place that is at its core, fundamentally familiar, but at the same time, utterly confusing. It's like entering your childhood home through a secret passage no one ever told you about. It's these different approaches that make Rich's writing so enjoyable, because his stories are absurd without being entirely fantastical. They are relatable, more than anything."—MTV.com
- "Simon Rich, in his new collection, Spoiled Brats, is in the Blazing Saddles phase of his writing career... As hilarious a portrait as you'll find of the self-involved, easily outraged, post-post-post-post-ironic world into which we've dumped the next generation... As solid a piece of comic writing as I've read in a long time."—New York Times Book Review
- "Ridiculous in the very best way... Spoiled Brats mocks its protagonists without being mean; we find ourselves sympathizing and relating with these characters even as we laugh at them. Straight-up cynicism feels a little cruel, but Rich stays away from that, and his stories make the same old tropes feel fresh and funny and new again... Spoiled Brats is undeniably funny, but its real genius is that, like the best comedy, it encourages introspection as well."—Bookpage
"Smartly funny and occasionally self-lacerating."
- "Spoiled Brats is brilliant, original, hilarious... An anthology as endlessly clever as it is hysterical...throughout the book, Rich displays brilliance and hilarity you won't soon forget. It's easily the funniest, most original read I've found in a while, and it comes with a dollop of insight to boot. I could bore you with more superlatives, but why bother? there's no chance of buyer's remorse on a book this enjoyable."—Associated Press
- On Sale
- Oct 14, 2014
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Little, Brown and Company