Author: George Singleton
Publisher: LSU Press
Price: $22.50 (Paperback)
George Singleton has two novels, it is true, but his reputation as a writer rests on his eight volumes of short stories. And it is a fine reputation. Singleton is a writer’s writer, a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, among other honors.
Making a career in the short story these days is a struggle, but a few, like George Saunders and Singleton, carry on.
Singleton’s newest, “Staff Picks,” is 14 stories, loosely connected. They take place around fictional Poke, South Carolina.
The residents choose to call themselves Pokers, we are told, rather than Pokites or something else, and this makes for a lot of off-color possibilities. Singleton is, to say the least, irreverent, politically incorrect, and very funny.
The volume opens with the story of Staff Pickett, who has entered, along with 16 others, a contest to win a new Winnebago by continuously touching the RV, being the last one to lose contact with it. Contestants get a toilet break every 4 hours and 15 minutes.
Staff “chose the Winnebago’s spare tire, which was sheathed in vinyl emblazoned with the image of Mount Rushmore,” a place she had always wanted to visit.
She is an archivist at a public library, quite clever, and outwits and outwaits the competition until during a lightning storm she bonds with the other finalist, Landry Harmon, a failed pro bowler. They decide to collaborate and use the RV to stage a jewelry store heist.
Staff as central character is an exception in these stories. Most of Singleton’s protagonists/narrators are eccentric males, a little cranky, with drinking or other problems, already fallen from a not-very-high perch, often already divorced with a second marriage in some trouble. They are wry, keenly observant, identify problems clearly, including their own, but are helpless to fix anything.
In “Columbus Day” the protagonist’s wife, Lisette, watches, one might say studies, real-life crime murder shows day and night, especially mariticide, the murder of one’s spouse. He seriously worries he is to be her target, but busies himself racking up the 10,000 steps a day his health plan demands, a regimen he agreed to because he “can buy a lot of cigarettes and booze with that extra twelve hundred dollars a year.”
Renfro Truluck walks at the mall, which he describes in absurd but accurate terms: “Vacant storefront, vacant storefront, Place That Sells Ball Caps” and so on. Renfro is not a prude, he insists, but is appalled that at a place called “The Relaxation Station … people get chair massages and sea-salt foot baths right in front of everyone walking by.” At “Brows ‘n’ More people sit in public to have their eyebrows waxed. Who does that!”
Not all the heroes are alcoholics.
The story “Gloryland” opens this way. “If I’d not punched out my previous three bosses, I wouldn’t have fallen prey to graveyard shifts.” An ex-professor of American Studies, he is a night watchman at a concrete recycling center. They are paid to receive chunks of broken sidewalks, smash them and sell the product as “sturdy fill.” His job is to keep contractors from dumping at night without paying the fee. His co-worker, Dickie Land, is writing the entire Bible on one large piece of pegboard in minute script with a one-haired brush.
In the story “Hex Keys” a father, on Father’s Day, 1972, takes his 12-year-old son on an odyssey to visit various women who, had matters worked out differently, might have been his mother. They start at the diner, Mama’s Nook, where young Preston is introduced to waitresses Arlene and Varlene, who look alike and are dressed alike, are sisters but not twins, and have a sister named, of course, Darlene. Pop had dated and broken up with all three. Any one of them might have been his mother.
When they are served their breakfast, Pop tells his boy it’s ok for him to eat his waffle, but he, Pop, won’t. “ Never eat food served to you by someone you’ve hurt, Preston. If I can teach you anything, that’s it.”
With any collection of stories by one author it is often best not to read through. More than two O. Henry stories and you begin to guess the upcoming reversal. Romantic stories soon cloy. With Singleton, the narrators and set-ups are so bizarre, to savor them fully, take one a day and let the cleverness and absurdity sink in.
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.