A Review of Whereabouts, A Novel by Southern Author, Scott Gould

In Southern author, Scott Gould’s new novel, Whereabouts, Gould quotes Sir Isaac Newton’s second law of motion, the Law of Acceleration, in his epigraph. It’s an unusual epigraph for us literary types who are accustomed to the quotes from Shakespeare, Yeats, or Nietzsche, and it made me pay attention. I take my epigraphs seriously. In Whereabouts, Gould “experiments” with what happens when a motionless body is acted upon by an external force. Or rather, what occurs when one character collides with another character. It’s a simple yet compelling method to view character and plot through, especially for creative writing instructors or writers. Plus, it wasn’t another overdone quote from an overdone author! So, there’s that…

In Whereabouts, Gould returns to the small town of Kingstree, SC, some may remember from his short story collection, Strangers to Temptation, but now with a female narrator and protagonist, Missy Belue. Mere weeks before her high school graduation her father suddenly dies, and Missy finds herself at a crossroads. Missy and her near-catatonic mother, Mona Belue, become inert in their grief. Mona juggles Vodka and religion while Missy goes through the motions, lost and dazed. To feel the void, Mona turns to Asa Floyd, the local funeral director who buries her late husband. In short order, Missy’s father and childhood home are replaced with a new stepfather and living quarters above Floyd’s Funeral Home. At the wedding, Missy’s third cousin, a/k/a road gypsy, Skyles Huffman, appears on the scene and from there the real collision course in humor and heartbreak takes off.

Whereabouts follows in the classic tradition of an epic poem where the hero/heroine undergoes a series of adventures before returning home and/or carrying out his/her mission or quest. It’s both a road narrative and modern-day fairytale, but I’m more inclined towards calling it a modern odyssey because Gould alludes to the Roman poet, Virgil, early on. Virgil also “borrowed” from Homer’s The Odyssey when writing The Aeneid. I don’t believe in coincidence when it comes to authors and allusions. Asa imagines himself as a Virgil guiding the grief-stricken through the “twists and turns” and the underworld of grief. This comic allusion to The Aeneid foreshadows Missy’s epic journey with Skyles. She hits the open road without a plan, yet she finally escapes Kingstree. Ironically, Skyles, who often warns Missy about life’s distractions, becomes her biggest distraction—her Dido to Aeneas. Skyles is as immobile as herself and isn’t her answer. While purposely driving in circles, Missy realizes she’s been figuratively driving in circles the entire time she’s been on the road with Skyles. She abandons him, finds a job as a waitress at the Lil’ Pancake House and a home across the street at the Thoroughbred Motel (that’s anything but thoroughbred). Her new home is a nowhere speck off the interstate, but Missy finally feels like she belongs until she’s dealt another life-changer. Her boss, Hassan, goes into overdrive and takes control of Missy’s life. This is the 1970s when old ideas die hard and Missy is young and naïve—a girl seeking a father-figure or at least the next man who crosses her path to tell her what to do. She’s hits the road again, looking for a sign, and maybe another man. Ultimately, Missy discovers internal strength and independence and leaves the road to return to her roots.

As antagonists go, the men in Whereabouts could be a lot worse. Sure, Skyles is a cheating, aimless, bad-mannered wanderer with a weird philosophy and some may say he took advantage of Missy’s grief and innocence, but he could be worse. The marines she hitches a ride with could have been deadly. Her boss, Hassan is a controlling nut, but he does care for Missy. Even her creepy stepfather, Asa, takes care of her in his own way. My point is the antagonists are not as villainous as I had imagined. So where is the conflict coming from then? It’s mostly internal. In many ways, Missy is her own antagonist. But I still think you must go deeper and ask what does Missy believe to be adversarial? I noticed this in Strangers to Temptation, how Gould used setting, or the town of Kingstree as a character, and he does it again in Whereabouts. On the onset, Gould personifies the town of Kingstree like a (maternal) prison warden: “But Kingstree was one of those small, motherly Southern towns that didn’t give up its young easily. She [Missy] and Angela and all their friends had geography and tradition working against them. Very few escaped.” The only answer is the road, but the road has its challenges. Even after Missy “settles” down at the Lil’ Pancake House and the Thoroughbred Hotel, these places lose their luster. Other readers may say its due the characters that inhabit these settings, but there’s a sense that these places are closing in on her, so she runs. The road becomes her companion for grief and escapism, but nonetheless, a companion which suggest another character.

Onto one of my favorite things about Gould’s writing—his innate ability at language, particularly similes and metaphors. I keep several small notebooks strategically placed around the house, in my purse, or even in my car for whenever I may steal a second to read a book. These notebooks largely house similes and metaphors because I wasn’t gifted with this talent. It’s not stealing, I don’t use them later, but I do study them and sometimes build my own from their foundation. I filled several pages of my notebooks with Gould’s similes before it dawned on me how unfair this was. The god of words hadn’t judicially divided up similes between authors, and I stopped hoarding Gould’s similes. The fact is all you have to do is open any random page in Whereabouts (or Strangers to Temptation alike) and they’re waiting for you. Here are a couple of my favorites: “Asa’s words hit his ears late, like they came on the breeze from a faraway place and needed translating,” and “She wasn’t more than a hundred yards from the mother’s wedding reception, but she was as lost as an Easter egg.” Gould’s similes and metaphors are never heavy-handed. You know when you read a bad one because they stand out like a red light in a one-light town. See what I mean? Even when he layers them, they come off organically, indicating a well-versed, well-read, skilled author who has been honing his craft for some time. This guy may have some poems up his sleeve.

On that same thread, I must mention the compass. You can’t miss it. It’s on the cover and tiny compasses appear at narrative breaks. This may seem cute to some, but I believe it’s more significant than just “cute.” The image serves as a reminder to the reader we are on a journey (or story) navigated by the author. Perhaps, it’s a nod to the actual journey of writing a novel as well, but I’m speculating. Mainly, it acts as an extended metaphor. And I’m reminded of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird—a classic example of a novel where Lee employs this literary trope. Lee’s mockingbird denotes a shattered innocence (simplifying here for the sake of brevity) and like Gould, she thematically places her mockingbirds at pivotal moments. While Missy’s mother is clearing out her father’s odds and ends, Missy discovers her father’s vintage compass collection. It sparks memories of family trips with her dad eyeing the dashboard compass as well as annual displays of his collection and him telling her, “A compass rose is a work of art for directions…The directions always stay the same, but the way somebody points them out, the way somebody gives them more meaning, that’s where the art comes in.” Here, the compass anchors Missy to her father, to her town, but it also points to loss. Further into the novel, the compass represents adventure and Missy’s desire for movement. Towards the end, it signifies how lost she is, a lack of self-awareness and direction. Finally, it denotes her desire to return home. The compass is a rich symbol and Gould gracefully weaves it throughout Whereabouts in such a way that it creates multiple meanings for different readers. This is the art of a good symbol and an excellent metaphor for life’s journey.

Whereabouts, its characters, setting, and plot are super accessible and just about any age of reader would enjoy this novel. Perhaps, I didn’t do Whereabouts enough justice in the comedic arena; I’m telling you it’s dang funny. The heroine, Missy Belue, navigates the South and its absurd environs from the local funeral home, to swamp roads, a roadside motel to a pancake house— filled with a motley crew of regulars and undesirables— and grows up in the process. Whereabouts is balancing act of hardship and hilarity, a feat not easily carried out but when this is well-done, deserves praise.

TO PURCHASE WHEREABOUTS: Support Independent Book stores and shop Bear Book Market or Amazon. I also highly recommend his book, Strangers to Temptation, a collection of linked narratives based in Kingstree, SC.

Upcoming Events: Join Scott virtually for Bookmark’s local author event, 4 on 4th, Feb. 24th at 7 PM.

More about Scott Gould:

Scott Gould is the author of the novels Whereabouts and The Hammerhead Chronicles (forthcoming from University of North Georgia Press), the story collections Strangers to Temptation and Idiot Men (forthcoming from Springer Mountain Press) and the memoir Things That Crash, Things That Fly. He is a two-time winner of the S.C. Arts Commission Artist Fellowship in Prose, as well as a winner of the S.C. Academy of Authors Fiction Fellowship. He lives in Sans Souci, South Carolina and teaches at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities.

Visit Scott Gould, Writer for forthcoming publications, events, and much more.

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Toast Lillian Smith’s 123rd Birthday Friday, December 11th at 7 PM with Revival: Lost Southern Voices: A Festival for Readers, Georgia Center for the Book and Georgia Humanities.

“The human heart dares not stay away too long from that which hurt it most.” Lillian Smith

Raise a cocktail to celebrate Lillian Smith’s 123rd birthday this Friday, December 11th from 7 PM- 9 PM, sponsored by Revival: Lost Southern Voices–A Festival for Readers, Georgia Center for the Book and Georgia Humanities. Due to the pandemic, The Lost Southern Voices Festival was postponed and then eventually canceled for 2020, but all is not lost for 2020. They have reorganized to celebrate Lillian Smith’s 123rd birthday with a showing of Hal and Henry Jacobs’ award-wining documentary, Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence. If you have already viewed the documentary, and want to discover more about Lillian Smith’s legacy, join the conversation at 8PM ET with Rosemary Gladney, Sue Ellen Lovejoy, Matt Teutsch, Keri Leigh Merritt, and Anna Weinstein. Want to make the event even more festive? Toast with a specialty cocktail called “The Lillian.” Visit Farm2Cocktail for the recipe beforehand and have you ingredients ready to shake it up.

Lillian Smith, author of Strange Fruit and Killers of the Dream, was an activist and educator, and one of the first white Southern authors to publicly speak out against segregation and white supremacy. To view the trailer, click here and scroll down to video. Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence received the “Best Full-length Documentary” Award at the 2020 Morehouse College Human Rights Film Festival and was also the 2020 Winner of Georgia Made Macon Film Festival.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 11, 7-9 PM ET via Zoom webinar. This is a free event! To register and for more information, visit the following link: A Lillian Smith Birthday Celebration. NOTE: You will need to register through Eventbrite first to receive a Zoom link.

Hope to see you there!

You Want More: The Selected Stories of George Singleton, a Review

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.

TO PURCHASE You Want More: Selected Stories of George Singleton, visit Hub City Bookshop or Amazon.

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!