“Winky” is a short story by George Saunders from his 2000 collection Pastoralia. It’s about a man who attends a self-help seminar and feels empowered to make a change. Here’s a summary of “Winky”.
Eighty people are in a dark room at the Hyatt for a seminar. Everyone wears colored paper hats that indicate how good they are at living—from Whites who are Beginning to Begin, to Pink, to Green, and finally to Gold who have Mastered Living.
A recorded trumpet sounds which starts a sketch. An actor labeled “You” is lost. “Inner Peace” calls to him, but he can’t get to her. “You” is intercepted by “Whiny”, “Self-Absorbed” and other impediments who weight him down. He laments his inability to reach “Inner Peace”. Fortunately, there’s someone who knows how to circumvent all the roadblocks to “Inner Peace”.
Another trumpet sound brings a masked man in a Gold Hat, possibly real gold, onto the stage. He flexes and drags all the impediments to “Inner Peace” into a paper jail. He’s liberated the audience, and they can stay liberated by repeating a simple mantra. It’s in all the ads and the crowd shouts it out: “Now is the time for me to win!”
Everyone knows it, even the lowly White Hats, including Neil Yaniky, an insecure man who watches intently. The Gold Hat man takes off his mask, revealing himself as the seminar founder, Tom Rodgers.
He offers the audience two simple concepts—oatmeal and crap. He holds up a bowl of oatmeal, which represents the soul in its pure state. But other people crap—this part is imaginary, not demonstrated—in our oatmeal. Friends, family and coworkers crap in our oatmeal and we thank them for it.
Tom Rodgers was once in the same situation. A nameless someone, his brother Gene, was crapping in his oatmeal. Gene was in a wheelchair from a motorcycle accident and demanded round-the-clock care. Yes, Gene was hurting, but that wasn’t Tom’s fault. He had his own dreams, so he found the courage to cut Gene off. He also told his sister Ellen that she could take care of Gene. As a child of God, he needed to do what was best for him. This was the first time he thought of the mantra.
“Winky” Summary, Cont’d
Gene now acknowledges that Tom was right, and Tom paid for the wheelchair ramp at his place. Ellen still has some issues and would crap in Gene’s oatmeal if he let her. The crowd applauds.
Tom continues his pitch. The crowd must identify their personal Gene, metaphorically screen off their oatmeal and confront their Gene in no uncertain terms.
The crowd lines up for the five Personal Change Centers, small white tents by the fire door. In the line is Neil Yaniky, a small balding man who solders little trinkets at home. He enters Personal Change Center 4, with Tom Rodgers, a few assistants, and a dummy in a chair. Tom talks fast because there are a lot of people to help.
He wants Neil to write the name of his personal Gene, the one who craps in his oatmeal, across the whiteboard on the dummy’s chest. He writes “Winky: Crazy-looking and too religious and needs her own place”, referring to his sister. Tom helps Neil simplify the problem. Her looks and religion wouldn’t really be concerns if she had her own place. Neil agrees it can be reduced to Winky needing her own place.
Neil pictures Winky’s white curly hair with the bald spot, and thinks of her hugging him too long when she returns from teaching church school all fired up with religious fervor. She also ruined his dinner date with Beverly. The main problems are they’re too old to be living together and he can’t focus on his own pursuits.
Tom points out that Neil is also crapping in Winky’s oatmeal by not being honest with her. An assistant puts a wig on the dummy so it can be acted out, like how it’s done in some primitive cultures. Tom hands Neil a baseball bat—now is the time to win. Neil knocks the dummy over with it, and Tom gives him a hug. It’s time for Winky to grow wings and go.
Tom turns Neil over to Vicki, a Gold Hat with a reconstructed face. She teaches him how to handle the confrontation phase with Winky. She roleplays the part of Winky while Neil tells her how she’s ruining his life and she has to go. Vicki occasionally points out when he’s being too severe.
“Winky” Summary, Cont’d
Neil-Neil will be home soon and Winky is rushing around. Some days she takes her time cleaning, imagining people enduring sad situations the way Jesus would want. Today, she dashes up the stairs with a strip of broken molding under her arm and a dirty sock over her shoulder.
She looks out the little stairwell window at the trees and meadow. It makes her thoughts turn religious; she’s going to record an album about God.
She prides herself on keeping house for Neil-Neil. Today, she’s preparing a tea for him. The molding has to go to the attic, the sock into the hamper and she wants to change into her green top—the one she wore at lunch when Neil asked her to come live with him. It was sweet of him because the Rustic Village Apartments had been sad. The other women were engaged and said mean things.
In the kitchen, she rinses a plate and dries it with her top. She realizes she didn’t change into the green one. This would be a cute anecdote for ChristLife magazine. The kitchen is a mess but she has to change first.
Winky thinks of her Dad, who used to say she was “purty”. She hopes he’s with Jesus now. She races up the stairs, still carrying the molding and dirty sock. Her top is on the floor. She changes right there and rushes back down, bringing the molding and sock with her.
She’ll be able to learn the piano now that she’s living here, then write her songs about God, and then learn about making a record. She’s grateful to be in a nice home. She knows she’s plain and her white hair is horrible. She praises God for this test.
Neil-Neil is a sweetie-pie, and Winky doesn’t understand why women haven’t noticed him. He’s like the good brother from the Bible who didn’t get a party. She’ll get her party in Heaven and is even getting one now, in a way. She remembers a pee-stained man outside the drugstore who called her ugly. She bore it, knowing she’s beautiful to Christ.
Today will be a little party for Neil. He deserves a big one, as the only loving soul she’s found. The bell rings, and Winky greets Neil at the door. She bows and the sock falls from her shoulder.
“Winky” Summary, Cont’d
While walking home, Neil imagines having a beautiful wife and a fancy car, and buying lots of expensive things. He’s stoked from the seminar.
His Dad had been beaten by life. He remembers when he was nine, his Ma wearing her torn Sunday dress, repaired with tape because she couldn’t sew. They were walking to church once when a group of trouble-makers yelled something about his Ma’s big breasts, even though all of her was big, and made a mooing sound. They knew his Dad wouldn’t do anything. Neil wanted to fight them, but Ma held him back. He was relieved when they entered the church. Winky beamed like nothing had happened.
He won’t live like that now, poor and scared. He admires the people described in Tom’s book, People of Power, who took what they wanted. He thinks of how powerful he feels when he sends Winky away when he has to solder through the night to make the rent. He works faster afterward. The book calls this a Power Boost, which you get from doing what you want. Now, he’s going to win by kicking Winky out.
Neil imagines cooking dinner for Beverly and getting intimate with her, but she’s seeing someone else now. Winky had ruined their date talking about religion and decomposing bodies. Her roommates had kicked her out. Neil was called in secret; that’s why he took her in. Her preacher also called him—people were quitting the church because of her.
It’s sad that she has to go. He remembers how close they were as kids. She has his key, so he rings the bell. She answers the door, looking as crazy as ever.
Winky bows and a sock falls off her shoulder. When she bends to pick it up, she bangs her head on the storm window. Neil’s resolve weakens. The speech he prepared doesn’t seem to fit. He’s not powerful; he’s not even as strong as the average person.
Enraged, he pushes past her toward his room. He wants to do something to wake her up—hit her or insult her—but he just calls her names under his breath.
(End of “Winky” summary)
I hope this “Winky” summary by George Saunders was helpful.