The prolific George Singleton follows up his 2020 collection of selected stories, You Want More, with a new batch of short fiction titled The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs. As Singleton’s readers have come to expect, this new book, his 13th, is full of wonderful absurdity and deep tenderness.
“What a Dime Costs,” the opening story, showcases these two traits. The narrative follows a young man named Julian, who doesn’t quite fit inside the world his parents call home. Julian’s father is a hyperactive painter — one who spills blue and yellow paint all over the small town where the family lives. He’s also an extensive dinner roll thief and the kind of man who goes around at fancy events and asks people, “You a Turtle? You a Turtle? You a Turtle?” As the story unfolds, we see the splitting of the family. The father, lost to the larger, freer world. The mother, lost to a brand of reckless responsibility. Julian, just lost. It’s the kind of story that can make readers laugh until they hurt in one paragraph and have them quietly crying in the next.
Elsewhere in the collection, “Locks” and “The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs” share a focus on men and how, even in adulthood, they can still possess the desire to shake their damaged histories. In “Locks,” for example, Singleton opens the story this way: “After Eugene Cripe inherited his father’s toolbelt, he felt it necessary to quit teaching high school history and become a handyman.” So, while wearing a ballcap displaying the acronym for Veterans Against Guns in North America, a group that appears on multiple occasions throughout the collection, Eugene does just that — and deals with an especially eccentric family on an outing to replace doorknobs.
In the title story, a man named Roger tries to care for his dying mother, but he keeps being interrupted by thoughts of his time in high school, when his 10th grade teacher, Ms. Starling, told him he would grow up to be an ornithologist — all based on test results, of course. To make matters more complicated, Ms. Starling reemerges in grown-up Roger’s life to torment him in various ways.
Of all of the memorable stories collected here, “Echoes” is the standout. While watching his grandson, Littlest, Big Les comes up with the idea of going to a Dairy Queen as a nice getaway. But there is no stop at DQ; instead, Big Les decides to make a whole adventure out of their trip and go all the way to Myrtle Beach, picking up a friend and a dog on the way. The story, radiating humor and pathos, explores the nuances of masculinity, our obsessive relationship with technology, connection, and what it means to be a family.
In other stories, an unfulfilled man named after a bar of soap tries to figure out his place in the world; a “slightly sought-after copyeditor” deals with his idiotic neighbors; and a son, whose mother died in a “car accident on her way to an annual physical,” tries to settle his Alzheimer’s-ridden father’s affairs.
Throughout, the layers of humor and heart sneak up on you, and they captivate over and over again.
It is common to hear Singleton described as a great comedic writer or a great Southern writer. He certainly is both, but The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs is the latest proof that we don’t really need the extra qualifiers. George Singleton is a great writer.
Bradley Sides is the author of a collection of short stories, Those Fantastic Lives. He teaches writing at Calhoun Community College and was an instructor at Humanities Tennessee’s Young Writers’ Workshop.