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The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs

This week, Don reviews “The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs” by George Singleton.

George Singleton of South Carolina is one of our funniest and most talented short story writers, but in a world that seems to crave novels 700 pages long and filled with pain, he is aware of the difficulty of attracting attention for one’s work and often makes that the subject of his comedy.

In one story, Singleton has a character invent the “Pre-Literary Agency.” New writers have a terrible time getting published or even getting an agent to represent them, so the narrator’s sister-in-law (always a perilous relation in Singleton’s stories) invents a business. She “takes in people’s manuscripts, supposedly reads them, charges $500 to $1000, then sends them off to actual literary agents, with a synopsis of the story. She promises nothing.” It seems the scheme is working. She might get one or even two a day. Do the math.

Singleton, in this collection of 17 stories, has somehow become obsessed with making up acronyms for organizations, usually nonprofit. Several stories have them. There is, for example, a fellow who works in anti-smoking campaigns. His organization is “SPARTAN—Support Patches Against Regular Tar and Nicotine.” This organization receives death threats from Big Tobacco, we are told, but also from Q-ANON which fears the patches will enable the Deep State to track people. Two other groups discussed are a humane society group, “Vulnerable Animals Give Incessant Nurturing Affection” and “Veterans Against Guns in North America.” It takes a minute.

As in many Singleton stories, the husbands often have a drinking problem and the marriages in these stories are perilous. Singleton invents new twists. In “Protecting Witnesses and Witnessing Protection,” the husband, Calvin Cline, with a “C,“ wakes up in a rental house some distance from home. After what must have been stupendously bad behavior, he was banished there by his wife so that “people are protected from witnessing the things you do.”

This husband, by the way, makes a decent living sewing life-sized, dryer lint-filled voodoo dolls on order. He’s made the likenesses of Tom Brady and Tucker Carlson, among others. His most popular is a doll using fabric made from old Clemson University sweatshirts, jerseys, etc., a kind of orange color. Singleton loves inventing occupations. In the title story the narrator’s father nicked himself a few times a day with different razor blades to test the efficacy of a styptic pencil.

Singleton has a lot to say about academic life too. The narrator of “Seminar” used to be a professor until “a fiasco in [his] life that involved punching a dean.” Now unemployable in academia, he has been hired to write back-cover trigger warnings on classic literature. For example, on the back cover of “The Sound and the Fury,” he puts “Potential Insensitive Treatment of a Mentally Challenged Person.” For “Invisible Man,” he writes the warning: “Shock Treatment, Prostitutes, Drinking, Racist Terms.” “The Idiot” by Dostoevsky: “Epilepsy.” There is very little off-limits for Singleton. We should all be grateful.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.