Between Wrecks offers 14 hilarious, sorrowful, and interconnected tales that take place in a South that is as particular to George Singleton as the Missouri Ozarks are to Daniel Woodrell. A masterful storyteller and reigning king of the comic Southern short story, Singleton deconstructs every hillbilly cliché with a wit that makes them entirely new.
The author of two novels and five short story collections, and a teacher of creative writing at Wofford College, Singleton bridges the gap between academia and the local bar. In Between Wrecks, he repeatedly returns to the themes of paranoia, infidelity, and dishonesty; poverty, inertia, and petty crime. These churning concerns, together with a few recurring characters, create the feel of a single, sprawling narrative. The result is an amusing commentary on the current state of the nation’s underbelly that cleverly blends the grittiness of real life, the safety of academia, and some very strange genre fiction.
“No Shade Ever” kicks off the book, and its opening lines feature a singular mix of intelligence and underdog aesthetics.
Because I’d seen part of a documentary on gurus who slept on beds of nails, and because I’d tried to quit smoking before my wife came back home after leaving for nine months in order to birth our first child–though she would come back childless and say it was all a lie she made up in order to check into some kind of speech clinic up in Minnesota to lose her bilateral lisp–I had a dream of chairs and beds adorned entirely with ancient car cigarette lighters.
The characters in Singleton’s stories are recognizably Southern, but he writes without condemning or romanticizing their shortcomings. They’re flawed; they’re drunkards, liars, losers, and con artists, but that does not define them. Between Wrecks is full of divorces, thick accents, and too many beers, but those things rub elbows with science, slivers of hope, and authors like Sartre, Pynchon, Salinger, and Flaubert.
In “Operation,” Saint Arthur Waddell is a teenager is living with his uncle, Cush, because his parents disappeared after his father killed a man. Waddell and his uncle receive a visit from a Department of Social Services caseworker, and their biggest concern is hiding the youngster’s intelligence because it makes him weird.
“You’re going to want to use them big words like ‘inured’ and ‘absconded’ and ‘nunplussed’, I know,” Cush said to me not two weeks before the caseworker showed up uninvited. “You can’t use them kinds a words around a person with a bachelor’s degree in the sociology. I mean it. You gone have to talk stupid.” He pulled his Fu Manchu out at forty-five degree angles so that it looked like a hirsute caret pointing toward his nostrils, as if a copy editor wanted to delete his nose in order to add a word or phrase like “Stop” or “Not now.”
Despite the touches of absurdity (“Which Rocks We Choose” starts with “Luckily for everyone in the family on down, the mule spoke English to my grandfather.”) and unrelenting comedy, Between Wrecks is a rural noir, with a gloomy, pervasive atmosphere and a downbeat outlook. Singleton’s characters are inextricably tied to their birthplace and social class, and Singleton makes his stories large enough to let readers know that his characters are not alone; they inhabit a world uncannily similar to our own.
The collection’s balance between dejection and laughs, along with Singleton’s quick-witted prose and convincing dialogue, make Between Wrecks a quick read, and the smaller narratives within each story keep the reader on her toes.
In “Jayne Mansfield,” the narrator is locked in a bar with a pathological liar because SWAT teams are scouring the area in search of two bank robbers. What happens outside the establishment pales in comparison to the tales and arguments inside.
Mike took a wild swing at me, missed, fell to the floor, and began to cry. The only thing sadder than a sixty-five-year-old drunken liar crying on an unclean bar floor is, of course, a seventy-year-old drunken liar, et cetera. Or a woman of any age, I imagine, at least for me. Mike reached his arm up for help. I didn’t respond, for I knew the trick–certain members of the insect world do the same thing, namely hornets. They’ll be all buzzing on their back, twirling in circles, acting as if they’re about to expire, and then when something comes up to flip them over, they sting. Mike said, “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry on my birthday. Damn! I promised not to fall down, and not to cry. The last time this happened was down in Biloxi, right after playing strip poker with Jayne Mansfield. I don’t need to tell you what happened to her later that night, down in Slidell.”
Singleton doesn’t shy away from engaging in metanarratives to ensure that readers are aware of the critiques he’s making. “I Would Be Remiss” parodies the acknowledgments section of a book, No Cover Available: The Story of Columbus Choice, African-American Sushi Chef from Tennessee, written by a recurring character and published by a disgruntled editor as vengeance. In its 80 pages of acknowledgements the author thanks everyone from the workers who put together the backseat of the car in which he was conceived to Emmett Till, the 14-year old African-American boy who was brutally murdered in Mississippi after reportedly flirting with a white woman.
Between Wrecks is a trip through the underbelly of America, a place at once familiar and bizarre. This collection balances beauty and grit and proves Singleton is one of the best short story writers working today.