October 2002

Michael Schaub

fiction

These People Are Us: Stories by George Singleton

One of the more enduring stereotypes in American literature is that of the quirky, unpredictable Southern writer. It's not as if the Northeast or Midwest have failed to produce oddball authors, but the South is disproportionately represented when it comes to writers portraying the more eccentric people in our midst. The "talented writer" stereotype is a hell of a lot more charitable than its ugly cousin, the "trailer-trash hick" stereotype, but it still sort of makes you feel like the Asian-American guy in calculus class, with people treating you with hushed awe and respectful deference. Let it be proclaimed through the streets: not all Southern writers are quirky, unpredictable and talented.

That being said, Southern writer George Singleton is quirky, unpredictable and talented, and his second short story collection is a revelation. Singleton, a resident of South Carolina, writes unbelievably engaging stories that are as pitch-perfect as anything coming out of the States right now. The fact that his characters are Southern is more incidental than you might think -- Singleton manages to tap into a consciousness that might be national and might be worldwide, but is definitely more than provincial.

For the most part, the narrators of Singleton's stories (they're all told in the first person) sound an awful lot like George Singleton – white Southerners in their late 30s and early 40s, many of whom teach English or philosophy at mediocre educational institutions. (Singleton himself works for the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts, which is not, by any means, a subpar institution. But still.) His characters are clever, they are funny, but there are unmistakable elements of tragedy in all of them. Quirky? Yeah, they're quirky, but in a weirdly organic way. There's nothing forced here; the characters become like longtime friends who might be just a little south of normal, but you never really think about it until it's pointed out to you.

Take, for example, "How I Met My Second Wife," the protagonist of which is the driver for a portable mammography van who starts an intense flirtation with the pretty young convict doing her time at a recycling station. A setup like that gives an author free license to be as weird and quirky as he wants, but Singleton's take is restrained and understated, while still being funny as hell (and a little bit sad). Singleton has mastered restraint (Pat Conroy, take notes), but is never boring.

You could argue that the South is a character in these fourteen stories, but it's too broad a term for the particular slice of America presented in These People Are Us. Singleton's South is the post-Reagan, economically depressed Dixie that most writers don't have the guts to tackle. The towns in these stories have names like Christ Almighty and Kingdom Come, which suggests that Singleton the mad philosopher is having a little fun writing about a part of the country that is largely Protestant and conservative. His characters, very few of whom are religious types, manage to both belong and not belong in their surroundings. Any Southerner who's either liberal or non-Christian should be able to relate.

The real star of These People Are Us, however, is the by-God writing. Singleton is a literary alchemist, capable of turning out flawless sentences like these from "Dialectic, Abrasions, the Backs of Heads Again": "My sister-in-law owns two uteruses, or uteri, and everything for which that stands, if it matters. It does." Two pages later, Singleton delivers a knockout punch: "I can cook macaroni and cheese, and I can cook spaghetti and I can cook angel hair. Boy, I can look into a pot of water and figure things out." When Singleton is good, he can hold his own with Raymond Carver, who was supposed to have a monopoly on simple-yet-profound declarations such as these. At his best, Singleton outshines Carver. Cheever, too. In a few years, the man could be writing like a slightly more well-adjusted Flannery O'Connor. (He gives a shout out to O'Connor in "Santayana Speaks Through Me": "We weren't reading about that Misfit guy story by that good dead Catholic woman from down in Georgia, either.")

Singleton is at his best when writing about relationships -- getting together, breaking up, and all the vague, awkward stages in between. In "Crawl Space," husband and wife try to reconstruct their marriage while having their faulty drain-waste system repaired. The lovers in "I Could've Told You If You Hadn't Asked" (echoes of Carver in the title) seem mismatched at first, but manage to teach and enrich each other, despite the fact that the woman is married to a delusional would-be filmmaker. Singleton is good-natured and cautiously optimistic, but there's not an ounce of treacle in these pages.

Singleton should become famous, but there's a chance he'll become well-known on the basis of his humor alone. It's impossible not to laugh at the teacher in "The Ruptures and Limits of Absence," whose past courses include "What the Hell Was That? -- A Look at Greek Tragedy Through Textual Hermeneutics" and "Theatre of the Absurd and the Aerobics of Country Music Lyrics." There's worse fates for a quirky Southern writer, but Singleton deserves to be recognized for much more than his singular ability to make readers actually laugh out loud. This, my friends, is genius, and you don't have to be from the South to recognize it.

These People Are Us: Stories by George Singleton
Published by Harcourt
ISBN: 015601274
Fiction
239 Pages