Between Wrecks, by George Singleton. Westland, Michigan: Dzanc Books. 300 pages. $15.95, paper.
I’ve read almost all of George Singleton’s books. His novel Workshirts for Madmen is the best thing I’ve read about overcoming addiction. His stories have been published everywhere. One time I sent him an e-mail telling him how great I thought he was. I’d been drinking.
And yet Singleton gets the labels. He’s a regionalist. He’s a Southern Writer. He’s a comic writer. He’s a short story writer—nay, short story master. It seems something of primer is called for.
Many of Singleton’s best stories, including those in Between Wrecks, consist of a few scenes stretched over the course of a day in which chance interactions with oddball characters precipitate deep thinking on the part of the protagonist. That may seem reductive, but it’s not unfair. The formula works.
Singleton’s heroes, usually down-and-outers, often alcoholics, are up against the question of purpose. In more or less farcical situations, they play out how we go about filling our lives with meaning. We see these characters’ flaws and bad choices from the start, but during the course of a given story, Singleton’s men demonstrate how the numbing effects of bourbon, romance, and art offer valid, if temporary, relief from the soul-sapping ubiquity of contemporary bourgeois culture. This is the challenge of reading Singleton: The drunks too often make sense. There’s a hard-won, Dostoyevskian logic behind this self-destructive streak, and in Singleton’s storytelling, the alcoholics and morons will, ultimately, test your faith in the straight life, the unquestioned correctness of empathic morality, physical fitness, hard work, etc.
In Between Wrecks Singleton has distilled a career’s worth of cranky boozers into one man, Stet Looper. This character, like his eponymous proofreading instruction, functions to negate what came before while actualizing, in itself, something new and weird. Stet is pursuing a low-residency master’s degree in Southern Studies, the irony of course being that, as Singleton’s foil, he is both subject and object of Southern culture. Stet and his quixotic search for a topic worthy of his master’s thesis connect the stories of Singleton’s collection, again blurring the line between subject and object (not to mention author and character) in a way that’s as fun as it is insightful.
The collection’s best moments come in pieces like those described above, where story and character manage to overcome the joke and punchline they would be if not for Singleton’s touches of understanding. In “Traditional Development,” a husband who can’t keep his wife from renovating their house finds himself stuck in a bar with a big talker whose Winnebago has rolled into the river. In “Vultures,” a man’s wife hires an inept private detective who mistakes his client for the presumed other woman. The subsequent photographic evidence is the literal portraiture of a marriage on the brink, while the story paints a picture of another kind.
Between Wrecks is dedicated to the memory of Harry (Crews), Barry (Hannah), Larry (Brown), and Lewis (Nordan) but there’s no ventriloquism here. These stories portray a South much different from the one Harry, Barry, and co. wrote about. Singleton’s South is less Farte Cove and more the do-it-yourselfing, craft beer drinking world we’ve all been obliged to tolerate. Singleton’s approach is admirable—other first-string writers seem to have a hard time just working a cell phone up to the ears of their characters—but at times, his treatment of up-to-date subject matter reminds me of my granddad trying to send a text message. It’s adorable but unnecessary, relevant, yes, but superfluous to the collection’s mission of portraying new ambiguities between design and content, commerce and exigency, reality and art. References to HGTV and Zumba are thrown in, I guess, to build character, but the material only resonates when germane to the purpose of the story, as in “Traditional Development.” The truth is: no one wants to start texting with Granddad, not really.
The book closes with the novella “I Would Be Remiss,” a rambling series of acknowledgements given by Stet Looper in the published manuscript that comes from his master’s thesis. Of course, the idea of a novella comprised of acknowledgments-page humble-bragging is a swipe at the writer-ego and how it surfaces in the backmatter to taint a decent book’s lingering effect. But there’s more than cynicism here. The novella builds slowly. As Stet thanks the various personages who’ve helped him more or less directly with his thesis, questions arise as to what drove him to write his book in the first place. One must ask, what’s the point? What was Stet trying to do that he couldn’t have accomplished by writing a deeply thought-out acknowledgments page?
The novella encourages us to consider our intentions before complicating our lives with vain pursuits. This is a recurring theme in Singleton’s work, and (I think) one of the big reasons his name isn’t up there with the Harrys and Barrys of Southern literature. He is no worshipper of form or mode. Singleton’s writing isn’t afraid to show art as a conduit, a vehicle for the compassion and rare grace that exist freely outside of it. Reading his stories, I get the feeling Singleton would’ve affected people similarly regardless of his vocation.
Lucky for us he’s a fiction writer—nay, a Great Southern Comic Short Story Master—who is alive, writing and teaching and, yes, responding to e-mails from beer-drunk college bros given to bouts of self-pity. When I received a response some days after sending that note telling Singleton how great I thought he was, I was stricken with the sense of regret and dread familiar to that of the author’s most authentic characters. I deleted the email without opening it. I was going through a weird time and wanted someone to tell me what to do with myself. I expect the e-mail said, Pull yourself together and accept things for what they are. I hope it said something about collecting aluminum cans to earn cash and how, if I ever thought I would make a living as a writer, I was out of my frigging mind. I expect it said something like that because since then I’ve read Singleton’s book of writing advice, Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds.
In hindsight, I know I drunk emailed Singleton because his stories made me feel like I was part of something larger than my experiences, and I wanted to act on that emotion. Maybe this is the only meaningful response we can offer our favorite writers, to say their work made us feel like our troubles were knowable, and because of that, somehow less terrifying. That, again, is the gift of Between Wrecks. Singleton understands the anxiety and desperation of our deplorable contemporary moment, with its shady academic programs and parachute salesmen of every stripe. The truth as we find it here hurts, but the after-effect is sincere condolence. These stories are ameliorative gestures, revealing the shared nature of our twenty-first century mistakes and mendacities. They function rhetorically, if not substantively, as confession, acknowledging and accepting us for what we have gone and done, while in the end, begging us move on.
Dan Townsend lives in Birmingham, Alabama. His fiction appears in Barrelhouse, NANO Fiction, and Drunken Boat, among others.