In the pages of The New York Times, George Singleton has been ranked as one of “the great pillars of Southern literature.” Anyone who has spent time around Singleton could easily imagine what the one-time enfant terrible — inventor of a thousand absurdities and adoptive father of dozens of dogs, snakes, and opossums; a prankster extraordinaire and raconteur known for his wicked grin, weathered ball cap, and five-o’clock shadow — would make of being designated a literary elder statesman. And yet anyone who has followed Singleton’s career would agree that he is, indeed, an institution, one of a kind, the author of more than a hundred unforgettable stories and lead actor of a thousand more that have never been written down.
Singleton’s fellow writers regard his work with an affection bordering on awe, but both comic writing and short fiction are underrated forms, which is how Singleton has become something like the John Prine or Tom Waits of Southern scribes: revered, honored, and esteemed but almost criminally underappreciated. Indeed, Singleton’s work is too original, too wildly hilarious and inventive to be imitated, and he’s not easily likened to other writers. Lewis Nordan comes to mind, or Daniel Wallace, maybe Padgett Powell or Donald Barthelme, but no comparison quite captures what Tom Franklin calls “the mad genius” of George Singleton’s singular style and sensibility.
You can’t adequately describe the world of George Singleton; the best you can do is say “you’ve got to read this.” So thanks be to God for the good people at Hub City Press for delivering an excellent place to start in the form of You Want More: Selected Stories, a greatest hits collection of 30 of Singleton’s most beloved stories, ranging from his first collections, These People Are Us and The Half-Mammals of Dixie, to his most recent, Staff Picks.
Most of Singleton’s stories are set in his native Upstate South Carolina, in the fictional towns of Forty-Five, Calloustown, and Gruel. They are populated with a cast of what Sherwood Anderson and Flannery O’Connor called “grotesques”: misshapen people with wonderfully alliterative names like Mack Morris Murray, Libby Belcher, Paula Purgason, Mal Morris, and Hellbent Heidi — people defined by comic failures and humiliations who nevertheless travel through life with dogged determination to transcend their downtrodden circumstances. His narrators and protagonists are native outsiders, people who don’t belong in the South of RV parks, dive bars, and strip malls but who stay, it seems, because they know they don’t belong anywhere else. They empathize with their misbegotten neighbors, perhaps because they understand that we’re all basically ridiculous creatures, distinguished from the more absurd specimens that surround us only by sheer luck.
For all of the slapstick humor that makes his work so irresistible, Singleton’s stories tap a deep vein of sorrow. In this sense, his clearest relatives may not be Nordan or O’Connor, but Kafka and Beckett. Under the comedy lies a heart-rending empathy that calls to mind the grim words of Schopenhauer: “A man may begin by following the craving of desire, until he comes to see how hollow and unreal a thing is life, how deceitful are its pleasures, what horrible aspects it possesses; and this it is that makes people hermits, penitents, Magdalenes.”
More urbane readers of Singleton’s stories used to think he had a wild imagination, but a trip through rural America or even an hour’s worth of watching cable news these days makes clear that he is something more like a correspondent on the frontlines of the culture wars. In this sense, it seems clear now that what was once taken as exaggeration was something more akin to Orwellian prophesy. We should have taken George Singleton more seriously when he told us all those years ago: “These People Are Us.”
As the old saying goes, if you’re either going to laugh or cry, you might as well laugh. And if you’re in need of a good laugh these days, as most of us are, look no further than You Want More.
Ed Tarkington’s debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, was published by Algonquin Books in 2016. His second novel, The Fortunate Ones, is forthcoming from Algonquin in January 2021. He lives in Nashville.