"If I wasn't on the panel, I'd be going anyway, just because the other guys reading are so good," says local novelist Charlie Geer of his co-hosts George Singleton and Paul Allen for the literary event, South Carolina Humor in Prose, Poetry, and Song. But the modest author, whose novel Outbound: The Curious Secession of Latter Day Charleston is a self-described "satirical romp," may be surprised at how many people in the audience will be there to see him.
Geer, who grew up in Charleston, had a few quirky careers before he decided to pursue writing full-time. "I worked in a circus for a while, on a fishing boat, as a high school teacher, and a carpenter's assistant," he recalls. "I was writing the whole time, and so one day I just decided to go to grad school and make it official." When Outbound came out last year, it was well-received by publishers, critics, and (luckily) the very people it takes to task: ordinary Charlestonians. "The novel hinges on the premise that there are so many festivals happening in the city at one time — an arts festival, for example, and a wildlife expo — that the peninsula eventually breaks off from the strain and floats out to sea with all the different groups of people on it," explains Geer. "It's a satire of contemporary Charleston, sure, but it hasn't proved particularly controversial — I haven't got any hate mail or anything. It takes on everyone, you see; if someone's offended on one page, they'll be laughing on the next."
Geer's co-host, Paul Allen, who currently teaches at the College of Charleston, is twice a recipient of a South Carolina Individual Artist Literary Fellowship, founded the Charleston Writer's Conference, and has been published in a number of literary journals and poetry anthologies. His most recent chapbook, His Longing (The Small Penis Oratorio), is a hilarious look at the less endowed — and man's shortcomings in general — through 19 stellar poems.
As for writer George Singleton, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, the Greenwood native has found critical success with books like Novel, The Half-Mammals of Dixie, and Why Dogs Chase Cars. His latest collection of stories, Drowning In Gruel, returns to the tiny South Carolina hamlet of Gruel, last seen in Novel, to examine its eccentric residents. Says reviewer Maya Segal, "Gruel may be small, Southern, and quirky, but it is also as miserable as the name sounds ... The misery that pervades almost every story in this collection and Singleton's unique style act as a literary train wreck; you may want to stop reading but you are compelled not to. Fortunately, the writing is good enough that the misery becomes somehow enjoyable."
Such talent condensed in one room will surely make for a lively discussion, as each author will read from his work and then field questions. But an entire morning dedicated to Southern humor does beg the question: what exactly is it that's so characteristic and distinctive about the things that make our residents laugh?
"Well, I think Southerners are quite self-deprecating," says Geer. "There's a sense of being the underdog — you know, having lost the war — and you can take a bit of bizarre pride in that, in being the loser. The best kind of humor is laughing at oneself. A lot has happened to Charleston that I find quite painful, but making a mockery of it is the most fun way to deal with it. Being bitter doesn't solve anything, so hey — why not laugh at it instead?"
Why not indeed? And just because you don't have volumes of Thackeray and Faulkner lining your bookshelves, there's no need to be put off by an event with the word "literary" in its title. "I hope our panel will be a palate cleanser of sorts, between heavier things," laughs Geer. "You don't have to be a literary person to have a good time — you just have to want to have a laugh and hear some stories. Humor is something that unites us all; it's one of the most common social interactions — you listen to people talking in restaurants, for example, and most of the time, what they're trying to do is make people laugh."
And laugh you will — at least if Geer, Allen, and Singleton have anything to do with it. "It's true — you don't normally think of literary panels as places where you'll be entertained," admits Geer. "Frankly, I don't particularly like readings, unless they're funny; I'd rather just stay at home and read the book myself! But this one's going to be different, I hope; it'll be warm and easygoing, and hopefully there'll be lots of laughs. It won't be pretentious — no black berets or anything. I think it'll just be like hanging out with us on the porch."
SOUTH CAROLINA HUMOR IN PROSE, POETRY, AND SONG • Piccolo Spoleto's Southern Literary Festival • $15 • June 2 at 10 a.m. • Charleston Library Society, 160 King Street Annex • 554-6060