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.

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Ghost Story Writer, Ann Hite, on her Ghosts

Do You Believe In Ghosts?

I do without a doubt. It’s one of the reasons I related to author Ann Hite’s stories. I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing Ann Hite’s memoir, Roll The Stone Away: A Family’s Legacy of Racism and Abuse this summer along with her novels, Lowcountry Spirit and The Storycatcher. Ann’s stories are peppered with ghosts and she graciously offered to contribute a personal experience for my October blog. Hope you enjoy it!

1: In the spring of 1969, a young couple placed their one-year-old little girl in their Volkswagen Bug and left their apartment for what one would imagine was an errand. As the driver of the car— I’m not sure if it was the husband or wife—pulled out onto the busy two-lane highway, I always assumed they never saw the eighteen-wheeler barreling over the hill at them. Did they have any premonition of what would happen in the days before? The truck driver did apply his brakes, but the truck didn’t stop. The massive tractor-trailer crushed the Volkswagen, killing the one- year-old girl, who couldn’t even walk on her own yet. The mother and father were transported to the hospital. One died and the other was placed in ICU. The family of the mother came to clear out the second floor two-bedroom apartment not far from the scene of the accident.

2. In the same spring, my mother came home one afternoon and told my brother, Jeff, and I that she had rented a one-bedroom apartment less than a mile from where we lived with my grandmother in her tiny eight-hundred-square-foot house. “We will have to share the one bedroom like here until a two bedroom comes open.” This news was the best ever. The apartment complex had a pool, playgrounds, and kids of all ages. “And we will still be close enough for you two to walk to school. You have to be careful of the highway. It is dangerous. A lot of accidents happen there.” One week before we moved in, mother had brilliant news. A two-bedroom apartment had come available. The items the former tenants left behind in the large room Jeff and I would share were not strange. The light switch cover was a little lamb with a rainbow behind it. “That’s for babies.” Jeff fussed. “It will be fine.” I looked in the closet. Two plastic baby bottles sat on the shelf. “I guess a baby lived in this room.” When I gave the bottles to Mother, a frown formed on her face. She took the bottles and tossed them in the trash can. “Is there anything else?” “No. Just the light switch plate. It is for a baby nursery.” Mother shook her head. “So sad.” “What’s sad?” ​

“The people that lived here were in a terrible accident. The little girl was killed instantly and one of the parents died at the hospital. I’m not sure which. The other parent wasn’t doing well the last I heard.” The thought of a baby dying made my stomach hurt. The thought that we had gained a bedroom because of this accident washed over me with guilt. But just like any twelve-year-old, I soon put the thoughts aside. For the longest time, when I turned on the light, I thought of the dead little girl, but slowly that attention drifted away too.

3. In the spring of 1971, we had been living in the apartment for two years. I was fourteen and at odds with my mother like most teenagers. I didn’t bring many friends home because I never knew what Mother might do. She was a self-medicating bi-polar, but it would be years before we would get this diagnosis. To me she was just crazy, and I didn’t want my friends to know too much about her. I spent all my free time at other people’s houses. Most weekends, I left on Friday night and didn’t come home until late Sunday evening. Our apartment was located at the very back of the apartment complex. The front of the building faced a large lawn with sidewalks that circled the area. To get to our upstairs apartment, one had to enter an enclosed stairwell through a screen door that slapped shut, warning us someone had entered. Sometime during those spring months, Mother began to complain that “my friends” were trying to scare her. “They run up the stairs and turn the doorknob. When I tell them I’m going to call the police, they go back down.” This happened only on the weekends when I wasn’t home. I racked my brain trying to think of who would do this. One Saturday night—the first I had been home in months—I sat with Mother watching television. The days were getting longer, and it was still daylight at eight. The screen door to the stairwell slapped, and the most horrible stomping moved up the stairs. In my memory, the walls vibrated. Mother and I looked at each other. Someone pushed on the cheap hollow front door. The doorknob turned back and forth as if someone was frantic to come inside. The stomping began again, and the noise moved down the stairs. I jumped to my feet and looked out the big picture window at the front stoop below, convinced I would finally catch whoever was stirring up my mother. The screen door swung open. I pressed my forehead against the glass, straining to see someone, to make sure I got every angle. The door slammed shut. “See. You thought your mother was cray. Who did you see?” “There was no one there.” ​

“You’re lying. You heard all that. Someone had to be there.” Of course Mother thought I was covering for my friends, and I wished I had been. There was no explanation for what I had heard. How could there have been no one in the stairwell? In the spring of 1973, we moved to a ground floor apartment. Our old apartment had a succession of people move in and out in a span of a year.

4. In the spring of 1979, I was twenty-two and had left my Mother’s home long before. It was a late summer evening when I ran into a friend who had lived in the apartment below us. We talked and the conversation swung around to what happened after we moved from the apartment complex. A single woman who lived in our old upstairs apartment came down to my friend’s door. In her hand she held a small revolver. She told my old neighbor that someone was stomping up the stairs and turning her doorknob, pushing against her door. She was terrified and had called the police. My friend hadn’t heard anything. This conversation convinced me of what I suspected from the night I saw the screen door open and no one emerged. A ghost? But who? Was it the parent that died? Was he or she angry because we were in the apartment? Why did the ghost take two years to begin haunting the place? Many questions with no answers.

5. Around this time of year, I always think of my very real experience. Off and on I’ve researched in the local newspaper archives trying to find something about the small family. Wouldn’t the death of a one-year-old girl in a horrific car accident make the news? If I ever knew the names of these people, they have been lost in my memory. Yet, their story and the haunting have remained with me for thirty-eight years. This is one of the stories that helped me to become a ghost story writer. What’s your story? I’d love to hear it. I think we all have one even if we don’t tell.

Want to read more ghost stories? TO PURCHASE Ann Hite Books via Amazon.

To learn more about Ann Hite and her literature, please visit her author website: Ann Hite- A Southern Novelist, Storyteller From Birth.

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