Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Fiction | Oddities of the Ruralist

I really love the short story. It requires an art and skill completely different than the full novel, and I think George Singleton has got that skill down pat.

His book, The Half-Mammals of Dixie, is the first short story collection I've read in a while. On a whole, I loved parts and didn't love parts.

I thought the first two stories started off strong—on a humorous, biting sort of note. "Show-and-Tell" is about a kid's father who sends him to school with old relics from his former relationship with the teacher, disguised as important artifacts, just to torture the teacher. I mean, that's a pretty humorous concept. 

The second, "Fossils," is about a KKK-member newspaper deliveryman who cuts up the papers to censor anything related to integration. One man has had it, and he and his son drive around leaving flyers for an estate sale at the deliveryman's house to try and get even. Again, a brief comedic piece that made me really chuckle.

It mostly starts with the fourth story, "When Children Count"... when the characters nosedive into something you feel is going to be lifelong hopelessness. Most characters are connected outside of their stories by a local flea market where swindles are part of every transaction and people live by a thread of hope that business will pick up once Floridians head north in respite from Miami's summer heat. "Answers" involves a husband and wife playing 100 questions as part of a mail-order mend-your-marriage kit; "Bank of America" follows a group of men—friends from high school—that just don't seem to really like each other and are all sleeping with one's wife; "Duke Power" introduces a corporate patsy to a flea market character we met back in story number two with disastrous results at a bowling alley; and "Page-a-Day" unwinds one couple's apathetic relationship in one strange day.

I know you don't get the full story in a short story and are sometimes left wanting to know more about the characters. But frankly, many of them just weren't very likable so I didn't want to know more! These were "characters" by every definition of the word—drunks, cynics, screw-ups; I just found it so...hopeless. They all seemed like lost, lonely people whose problems mostly stemmed from their own shortcomings and unwillingness to do anything.

Maybe I'm taking these stories about the South much too personally, but this hopelessness is a version of the South that I don't want to read about and don't want to share with my non-Southern neighbors. Yes, it's a departure from the other Southern stereotypes in literature (race relations and the old-money drawl), but it highlights another Southern stereotype that I find negative—an overwhelming sense of apathy, small-mindedness, stuck wherever you were put.

Kudos to Singleton for branching out in Southern lit. I think he gives these oddities of rural Southern life an honest (and sometimes satirical) look, no matter whether I like it all or not.

I wish I hadn't already returned my copy to the library, because the hardcover version has THE BEST author photo I've ever seen, and I can't find it anywhere online!

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