Author: George Singleton
Publisher: Dzanc Books
Price: $15.95 (Paperback)
Before there was “Lincoln in the Bardo,” George Saunders had achieved national fame with his volumes of short stories. In America, where the novel rules, this was unusual.
Another veteran short-story writer, George Singleton, has now published seven volumes and still has not received the acclaim he deserves.
Singleton once, in response to comments on how he should write a novel, did in 2005 write a novel and, to make sure people noticed, titled it "Novel: A Novel.”
Then he went back to writing stories.
Why did Saunders achieve such success and Singleton, not yet? Probably because Saunders' stories take on many of the serious issues of contemporary American life and Singleton's stories are, mostly, comic.
Comics, as everybody knows, get less respect.
But for a good time, as the telephone booth walls used to say, read George Singleton.
This new collection of 15 stories is bound together not by plot or recurring characters, but by place.
Fictional Calloustown, South Carolina, is located between Columbia and Savannah. Even today, the residents are afflicted with the inferiority complex begun when General William Tecumseh Sherman, in February of 1865, swerved around Calloustown, not finding it “worthy of torching."
They hold an annual Festival, "Sherman Knew Nothing," at which the citizens revile General Sherman and burn down a life-size replica of their courthouse, which never existed.
The town also has an annual "Invasion of Grenada Festival," actually a reenactment, since a young Calloustown Marine, Clarence Reddick, died in President Reagan's "Operation Urgent Fury."
For entertainment there is also a Finger Museum, where the severed digits of careless pulpwood workers float in formaldehyde, and The Safest Petting Zoo Ever, at the taxidermist's.
The town is failing in every imaginable way. The only tavern is self-service and on the honor system.
It would be generous to call it "brain drain," but most young people leave. After eight generations of intermarriage, 90% of the population are either Munsons or Harrells. Locals realize "the gene pool's not wet enough to emit a mirage now" and will get worse unless something is done.
The festivals are not attracting enough attention. Some have pinned their hopes on getting somebody from Calloustown into the Guinness Book of Records. Two locals played dominoes for 67 hours straight. Another ate four barbecued armadillos in twelve minutes. Another stared at thirty-two solar eclipses and he "ain't gone blind yet.” Another trained an ostrich to clean gutters. Finis Pettigru "died of a heart attack in the middle of trying to break the world record for smoking cigarettes in a twenty-four-hour period."
Work, as one might expect, is hard to come by. Natives have adapted. One man, who works for county maintenance, goes out late each night and digs potholes in county roads, to avoid being laid off. Exterminators do well; the town suffers from a plague of rats. One couple have become "pre-foster-parents-to-be."
Singleton is wonderfully non-PC. The story entitled "Spastic" is about a teen-age runner who puts tourniquets on his arms to increase blood flow to his legs. In "After School" a student with widespread allergies is accommodated. The school kills all the shrubbery, cuts down the trees, puts gravel over every inch of the grounds, sprays DDT on the ball fields and declares all future proms to be corsage and boutonniere free.
Smoking, and then perfume, hairspray and deodorant are banned. And so on.
George Singleton is irreverent, wickedly clever, contemporary, and very very funny.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.