I’m fairly certain George Singleton was a ten-month baby. This isn’t meant to be derogatory. God, I hope not—I was a ten-month baby myself. In the introduction to The October Country by Ray Bradbury, Bradbury says he was a ten-monther, and while in the womb for that extended amount of time, his senses were sharpened; he felt everything, completely aware of everything from the moment he was born. This gave Bradbury an advantage when he later started writing. I’m not going to delve into the science or truth of Bradbury’s statement. My takeaway here is this: to be a good writer you must be an eyewitness, a spectator, pay attention, and you must, must use all your senses. Clearly, Singleton is paying attention with his latest collection of short stories, You Want More, which captures small Southern towns and characters in all their glory. His characters are what us literary types call round, not rotund, by fully fleshed out. They’re beer and bourbon drinking philosophers, grumpy old men with heads in the gutter, scam artists, miscreants, underdogs, and if employed, have odd occupations like prebouncers which I didn’t even know was a career path. They may seem deeply flawed, but there’s always one Shakespearean fool in the story spouting truth, and for all their bad behavior his characters are loveable. His stories guarantee to entertain, but underneath the hilarity there’s satire, there’s irony, and symbolism. Singleton uses every tool from the tool shed, and to do that, you must be paying attention.
I met George at my MFA residency a couple of summers ago. I was driving back from the Dollar General near the campus with a bottle of bleach the salesgirl suggested I use on my poison ivy (another story). It was Georgia, June, and boiling and from my car I saw a man hitting the asphalt with a determined gait clad in a ball cap that should have been put out of its misery years ago. I thought, “That’s George Singleton.” I had a copy of Drowning in Gruel and Staff Picks sitting in my passenger’s seat. I looked on the back of the cover for his headshot and sure enough–George. It looked like he knew where he was going. Thirty minutes later when my roomie and I headed out for the nightly reading, George was still navigating the parking lot, but now appeared pissed. I rolled down the window and said/asked, “You’re George Singleton.” A bunch of expletives about not being able to find the expletive library emerged from his mouth and he jumped in the back of our car. Rather than telling him how much I admired his work or that I am a short story writer myself and because I was nervous, I launched into questions about another author, William Gay, who I knew was friends with George. I said, “I got to pick your brain for some William Gay stories.” I wrote about William Gay for my critical thesis; he was still haunting me, but I wanted to pick George’s brain about his writing, too. It was kind of rude, seeing George was the keynote speaker and looked like he just exited a Temazcal and Mother Earth or the Shaman kicked his ass, but he took it graciously and later that night walked into our dorm room (where the rest of the residents had gathered) with a case of PBR and those stories. I still have one of those PBRs.
If I’m reading a book I plan to write about, I fill the pages with micro-post-it-notes tagging lines I enjoy and larger sticky notes with comments. Later, I’ll read through my notes and it all comes together from there. Pretty common procedure. My notes for You Want More went something like this: A travelling aquarium salesman, forced to attend a motivational conference, hooks up with the speaker’s scar-faced, ex-gangster daughter; A former child-star of a statewide lice documentary returns to his hometown and high school reunion and has an epiphany; Pam, a dog-healer (not a veterinarian, but literally a dog who heals), licks away diseases, illnesses, and infection with her tongue; A Halloween miracle occurs when Jesus Christ and his two thieving companions go trick-or-treating; “The Novels of Raymond Carver” (???? If you don’t get it now, you’ll get the joke when you read the story); Richard Petty, who has written the great American novel, delivers his acceptance speech for the National Book Award, and manages to squeeze in every sponsor. According to Aristotle, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” You see where I’m heading here. Anyone unfamiliar with George’s type of genius–who perchance read my sticky notes–may recommend inpatient therapy. Yet, there’s something grander going on with these quirky stories. “Four-Way Stop” is a masterpiece of balancing comedy and tragedy. In “Richard Petty Accepts National Book Award,” Singleton compares pit-road with the writing industry, which turns out isn’t much of a stretch. And every time I end up in the town of Gruel, like his characters who cannot seem to escape or otherwise get sucked back into Gruel, it’s as if I’m reunited with my own dysfunctional family. There’s Victor Dees, the proprietor of the Army-Navy store. There’s Jeff, the owner/bartender from Roughhouse Billiards. If you are a short story writer, reader, or maybe just want to read literature that won’t induce you to pen a suicide letter, then get a copy of You Want More. Hell, get a copy of all of Singleton’s books. His stories are like the loyal dogs he frequently writes about. They will be waiting for you by the door. If you’re really good, they may fetch you a beer.
Singleton is a first-person point-of-view wonder boy. His third-person point-of-view feels like first-person narration, because it’s just so dang close. There’s even a second-person point-of-view story in You Want More (“What Could’ve Been?”), and that isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish. It’s both funny and not so funny when you put it in perspective. Even though his narration is super tight, occasionally the narrator sort of stops and chats about writing. For any other writer this would come off as an intrusion, but it works and for us writerly folks who ponder the same issues it’s a nod to the craft.
Then there are the classic Singletonian lines that every writer wishes they came up with first: “You’ll have twenty lies, all of which you will recycle the rest of your life.” Or, “My team members stared at me as if I piped up about how Jesus was a gay man and couldn’t decide which of the twelve disciples to date.” I’m not giving away anymore Singleton lines for free. Buy your own copy! Buy them all! For what my opinion is worth, Singleton epitomizes what is best in the modern American short story and should be on every syllabus starting in high school. If you’re concerned with language and/or content, I have a friend who teaches “Trombones, Not Magic” from Staff Picks to his AP English high school class. Generally, these are feel-good stories with a moral to the story and it’s never force-fed.
I read an article about how Tennessee photographer, William Eggleston, depicted suburban American life like a John Cheever story. I see both these masters in Singleton’s works. If John Cheever was the “the Chekhov of the suburbs,” then George Singleton is the John Cheever of the small Southern town. But if I had to compare Singleton’s stories to another photographer, it would be Chris Verene, who at a young age started documenting his friends and family from his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois. Like Verene, Singleton articulates honest stories about the everyday person anyone can understand. His stories remind me of flipping through the family photo album. It feels like home, and yes, we want more.
More about George…
George Singleton has published nine collections of stories, two novels, and a book of writing advice that includes illustrations by Daniel Wallace. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, One Story, the Georgia Review, the Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He’s received a Pushcart Prize, and has ten stories in the New Stories from the South anthologies. Singleton received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009, and he’s a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.
Write the story you want to live!