George Singleton writes rip-roaring funny stories with achingly sad twist endings. You usually know from the start that the circumstances are grim — the alcoholism, the threat of family dissolution, the struggling barbed-wire business — but the light touch of his storytelling keeps you in stitches until the closing paragraphs stun you into silence.
"Normally my narrator or my main character is thinking that he or she is a lot smarter than everybody else, but then there's a little bit of a comeuppance," Singleton says. He says he learned the technique from Flannery O'Connor, and in his latest story collection, Between Wrecks (published May 6 by Dzanc Books), many of Singleton's characters are at least as grotesque as O'Connor's. There's Bobby Suddeth, the slow kid who roams the junkyard all day long. There's Prison Tat Pat, a former big-city stockbroker and recent divorcé who tattooed the word "GOLD" on one hand and can't decide what to put on the other. And then there's Stet Looper, a recurring character in many of the stories, left puzzling over why his wife left him and why he can't seem to finish his low-residency master's program in Southern culture studies.
Singleton says Between Wrecks was originally meant to be "one big-ass book" in combination with Stray Decorum, his previous story collection. Both books involve the trials and tribulations of the Looper family of Upstate South Carolina, particularly as Stet struggles through a nebulous correspondence course that forces him to poke and prod at the culture that raised him.
Singleton, a native of Greenwood, S.C., is an accomplished fiction writer and teaches English and writing classes at Wofford College in Spartanburg, but he shares at least one thing in common with Looper: He sure would like to have a degree in Southern studies.
"Maybe those programs were around when I was a kid, but now I see them at Chapel Hill and Ole Miss and go, 'God dang, I wish I'd studied that,' because you can kind of go into food or politics or literature or music. You can go into a lot of different areas with Southern culture studies," Singleton says.
Several of the stories in Between Wrecks focus on Stet's abortive attempts at thesis projects. The opening story, "No Shade Ever," finds our hero foraging in a junkyard for old car lighters that he'll later glue onto furniture in a bad attempt at folk art. In "Which Rocks We Choose," Stet interrogates his wife's scrapbooking class in the hopes of finding some glint of cultural truth buried under all the gossip and vapidity.
Unlike Stet's projects, Singleton says his plots and characters often come straight from his imagination. But when he's hard up for inspiration, he does go into the field looking for material. "I tend to be at a flea market or Walmart or a thrift shop or walking down Main Street in Spartanburg or something, and something will happen every time," Singleton says. "Somebody will say something and I'll say, 'Oh, I have to go home and write a story about it now.'"
South Carolina readers will delight to find Palmetto State observations scattered throughout Between Wrecks: how Rock Hill is really pronounced "Raw Kill," how lonely hearts find their way to Myrtle Beach, how a small-town bartender will make you a Manhattan out of bourbon and Cheerwine. For these and other reasons (his references to Faulkner, his predilection for characters who tell tall tales), Singleton is easy to peg as a Southern Lit writer.
"I don't think people said to John Updike, 'Are you a New England writer?' But so what. I'm kind of proud of it," Singleton says.
Of course, Singleton's Southern Lit is not of the precious, nostalgic grits-and-sweet-tea variety. He teaches a class at Wofford on Grit Lit, featuring contemporary writers from the dark side of Southern letters like Harry Crews and Dorothy Allison, and most of his stories retain a jagged edge.
Singleton's influences reach well beyond the Mason-Dixon, though. A standout story in the collection, "Tongue," recalls the macabre wagers and gruesome dismemberment scenes of Roald Dahl's adult fiction. The title story, in which patrons are trapped in a diner while car accidents block traffic in either direction on a scenic highway, echoes Sartre's conception of hell in No Exit.
But for one reason or another, Singleton will always have an image problem. He says audiences up North sometimes suspect he's a raging alcoholic like Faulkner. Part of the problem is, literally, his image: If you do a Google Image search for his name, one of the first photos that comes up is of Singleton standing with a sawed-off shotgun in front of a pickup truck bed full of empty beer cans.
He says it was a joke, a picture he printed off and sent as a Valentine's Day card to all his friends who'd settled down and made nice families. When NPR came to his house to do a story about him in 2001 and asked to use the photo, he told them to go ahead. Little did he know that picture would end up archived for all eternity on NPR.org, following him around like a digital evil twin.
"You know, it's the radio, how can you see this shit on the radio?" Singleton says. "I just wasn't thinking about it ... I was not technologically advanced to know about this thing called the World Wide Web back then, so I didn't know it was going to end up on the internet. So that's how it showed up there."
"Sons of bitches," Singleton adds. "I may never listen to NPR again."